Mental health care is a complex system. Laws and regulations, government budgets, and research on best practices and educational standards for various services, all create the umbrella of resources we use when we are struggling. And it is in our interest to advocate for ourselves as we seek shelter beneath that umbrella.
Self-advocacy—promoting and supporting our own interests and well-being—requires reflection and self-awareness to know what does and doesn’t work for us. Sometimes, we need the courage to say: “I don’t know what I need. Can you help me figure it out?”
Advocating for ourselves whole-heartedly entails addressing every possible layer that could affect our lives: personal, community and government. These layers have profound influences on one another, and are therefore equally important.
Here are my recommended practices for each of these layers:
Be assertive and express your needs in a way that fosters respect. If you’re too passive or try too hard to avoid conflict, you risk your needs not being met and not being taken seriously. Also, if you don’t take someone’s needs and feelings into account, you may come across as aggressive. Use positive words, confident body language and “I” statements. For example, “I worry about you and feel hurt when you arrive home late without calling. From now on, please tell me if you’re running behind.”
Practice self-care. Good self-care demonstrates that you value yourself. Taking medications consistently, eating nutritious meals and exercising are all important steps in advocating for your mental health.
Know your therapy and medication options. When you visit with your doctor or therapist, don’t hesitate to offer your thoughts on the course of your treatment. By doing so, you ensure that your providers take into account your personal preferences and values.
Ensure your safety. Whether or not to disclose your diagnosis takes careful consideration. People need to earn your trust before you share your vulnerabilities with them.
Build up your team. When you develop good relationships with your family, friends and the larger community, you strengthen your support system. The adage that the people around you influence your health and well-being is true, and by strengthening the whole system, you all rise together.
Maintain a good work/life balance. Expecting fair wages, safe working conditions and a balance between your work life and personal life is essential to positive mental health. Asking for accommodations at work can help you accomplish both your career goals and the company’s objectives.
Have supports in place. Insist that your child’s school, your parent’s retirement home and your workplace offer mental health resources when needed.
Work with advocacy groups. By getting involved with organizations like NAMI, you help promote mental health awareness and reduce stigma. Also, creating personal connections with people who are empathetic reduces social isolation, which can make recovery easier.
Vote. The easiest way to advocate for your needs at the government-level is to vote for candidates who take your concerns seriously and understand the importance of mental health.
Inform your representatives. You can write to and meet with your representatives about legislation that impacts mental health care. If you contribute your thoughts in a town meeting, you can help to shape your environment. You can also support a local Crisis Intervention Team and advocate for mandatory Mental Health First Aid training for high school students.
Mental illness can damage self-esteem, but when we self-advocate within every layer of our lives, we are able to repair some of that damage and empower ourselves.
Traci Noelle, author of Two Hands: Use rituals to create your own peace from Borderline Personality Disorder, has been running away from home on a sometimes bumpy, but always interesting road, since 1995. Traci settled in British Columbia, Canada, where she writes on her blog, Letters to a Young Borderline.