You Can Be A Mental Health Advocate

By: Amy Marschall, PsyD

A therapist can diagnose and treat a variety of mental health diagnoses, help you better understand yourself, and improve your personal well-being. However, a therapist treating an individual cannot undo the effects of ongoing systemic oppression.

Many therapists are involved in activism and advocacy. In fact, the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics states: “Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people.”

While the American Psychological Association does not have a similar principle in its Code of Ethics, it presents seven ethical guidelines for psychologists in the pursuit of social justice: “(1) reflecting critically on relational power dynamics; (2) mitigating relational power dynamics; (3) focusing on empowerment and strengths-based approaches; (4) focusing energy and resources on the priorities of marginalized communities; (5) contributing time, funding, and effort to preventive work; (6) engaging with social systems; and (7) raising awareness about system impacts on individual and community well-being.”

But you do not have to be a therapist to advocate for positive change in policies that impact mental health. Anyone can be a mental health advocate. Here are four ways you can advocate for systemic change.

Stay Informed.

Things change quickly, so keep yourself up-to-date on what is happening both locally and nationally relating to mental health. This is not limited to issues directly relating to care, such as people losing Medicaid coverage when the COVID-19 emergency ended. It also includes policies that harm communities, such as bans to gender-affirming care or limiting the autonomy of disabled people. It is difficult if not impossible to have good mental health when your government is actively making your life worse or trying to outlaw your existence.

Take Care Of Yourself.

We cannot pour from an empty glass. It is so easy to burn out on the constant flow of Terrible Things we have to fight against. It is okay to take a step back when you need to in order to recharge and fight another day.

The internet is a wonderful tool, but the way that information flows in the modern world means that we can receive more bad news in a day than people used to hear in their entire lifetimes. No wonder people are anxious. It is okay to moderate your media consumption and unplug when you begin to feel overwhelmed – in fact, it is essential in order to keep up the fight.

Think of it this way: if you learn about something the day after it happens instead of in the moment, will that change what you are able to do to fight it? Sometimes this might be the case, but often, one individual cannot change the flow of an event if they happen to learn the news the next day instead of the instant it happens.

Mental health advocacy and activism aims to create systems changes that prevent mental health issues on a large scale. At the same time, individual mental health matters. You continue to exist within the system as it is, and you deserve care.

Choose Your Issues.

On a similar note, decide which issues you want to focus on. There are so many things happening, it is impossible to be at the forefront of every battle. At the same time, all of these issues are important, so it makes sense that many are tempted to put their full effort into every problem as it arises. Advocates are passionate people, so this temptation makes sense.

At the same time, just like we cannot give one hundred percent all of the time, we cannot be fully focused and involved with every issue. It is a recipe for burnout.

Decide which issues you want to focus on. This does not necessarily mean choosing the highest priority issue; it can mean playing to your individual strengths or looking at where it is most appropriate for you to be involved. For example, as a white woman, I may care deeply about issues around racism, but that is not a space I need to take up. Instead of centering myself, I boost and support Black, Indigenous, and other people of color’s voices. I provide support where appropriate but do not take the lead, since it is not my place to do so.

There are so many advocacy issues out there. You can find your place where your energy can do the most good.

Never Stop Bothering Your Representatives.

The people employ elected officials and government workers. They work for you, even when they do not act like it. You have the right to contact them with feedback about every decision they make, whether in writing or via phone call.

If you are not sure where to start, these resources can help:

Every single person has the capacity to effect change in the world. I hope these tips can help you advocate for yourself and your community.

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