Mental health advocates play a vital role in every community. For individuals living with a mental illness, advocates can be the difference between feeling alone in the world versus feeling seen, heard, supported, and understood.
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We may hear the term “advocacy” and believe that we know what it entails. What if what we think it means isn’t quite accurate? Let’s start by reviewing the definitions of ally, activist, and advocate as we sometimes mix these terms up.
Ally refers to “one that is associated with another as a helper: a person or group that provides assistance and support in an ongoing effort, activity, or struggle.” It is often used to describe someone who is not a member of a marginalized group, but who actively works to support that group.
Activist is “a person who uses or supports strong and direct actions to create change.” They incite social or political change by leading and organizing things like protests, rallies, and sit-ins.
Advocate refers to “one that supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group.” In other words, advocates engage in difficult or controversial situations on behalf of marginalized groups in order to make social and political change.
Looking at mental health advocacy, this can be exemplified in many ways like sharing educational resources with friends and family. Advocacy can also include signing petitions, writing blog posts, creating programs, and asking government representatives to make mental health services more accessible. Additionally, mental health advocacy means participating in open conversations about mental health and helping to end the stigma.
Sometimes advocacy and activism are used interchangeably. But advocacy is usually seen as the act of supporting a cause within the system. On the other hand, activism is based on actions to change the system.
Since many people suffer alone or in silence due to the stigma surrounding mental health, one of the most important aspects of a mental health advocate is to help end this stigma and discrimination. To do this, many advocates aim to create a safe space. For example, if they have a friend who is struggling, they offer their support and let them know they are always open to talk. An advocate may also share their personal story about mental health to let others know that they are not alone and that help is available.
Additionally, mental health advocates help raise awareness and increase access to mental health resources by:
Calling on school boards to ensure the curriculum includes mental health classes for students.
Sharing information about mental health online.
Educating friends and families about the dangers of stigma, including lowered self-esteem and increased discrimination.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) shares a great example of the importance of mental health advocacy through the story of Jack Hanratty. Hanratty is the coach of the provincial Rugby Nova Scotia team. During his five years of coaching, the rugby community lost a lot of members to suicide and have witnessed many players struggle with mental health. Knowing he needed to do something, Hanratty partnered with the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia to create a campaign. With the motto “If you talk, I will listen. If you listen, I will talk,” the campaign created a safe environment where players could open up about their mental illness. The campaign has become a huge success and is being used in and outside the rugby community. You can learn more about Jack Hanratty and other mental health advocates by visiting CAMH’s website.
It’s always encouraging and inspiring to see celebrities using their platforms to stand for something important; whether it’s to raise funds for a cause, or to raise awareness about a topic.
The following are just a few celebrities who have been open about their mental health and are raising awareness: Chrissy Teigen, Selena Gomez, Pete Davidson, Adele, Kid Cudi, Michelle Williams, Demi Lovato, Emma Stone, and Wayne Brady.
Equally inspiring are young adults who are destigmatizing mental health around the world by sharing their own stories, raising awareness, and helping to increase access to care:
Diana Cho was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder when she was 13 years old. To help her cope, she started writing letters. This action gave her the idea to start Letters to Strangers, a youth-led non-profit seeking to destigmatize mental illness. The organization provides a platform for individuals to write anonymous letters about their mental health issues, offering support to others who may be struggling too.
Te Manaia Jennings is an Indigenous artist from New Zealand. Having struggled with depression and anxiety, Jennings uses her art to open conversations about mental health and her personal journey with it.
Michelle Oyoo Abiero is the co-founder of Project Fmile, an organization aimed at raising awareness and destigmatizing mental health in Kenya. Michelle works with psychologists and psychiatrists to provide accessible mental health resources and referrals to youth in need. She also creates campaigns and forums to educate students on how things like bullying, body image, and sexual assault can impact mental health.
Constantina Venetis is another great example of a mental health advocate who is helping to end the stigma around mental illness by sharing her journey with Bipolar Disorder. You can learn more about Constantina by watching the video below.
Many Canadians have also become mental health advocates over the years, including actor Jim Carrey, author Mark Henick, and Dragon’s Den Jim Treliving (who is on the National Committee for CAMH with his wife Sandi Treliving).
Olympian Clara Hughes is a well-known advocate for mental health. She is the founding spokesperson for the Bell Let’s Talk campaign. In 2014, Hughes rode her bicycle around Canada – over 12,000 km – to bring awareness to mental health and, in turn, an inspiring and powerful documentary of her mission was made.
There’s also Tyler Smith who is a survivor of the 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash, which caused him to lose half of his junior hockey teammates and coaches. After the crash, Tyler had to learn to cope with his realities and quickly learned how important mental health is. Tyler now speaks publicly about mental health and encourages everyone to seek help: “If I can give one piece of advice to anyone from all of this, it’s that you have to be willing to open up when you aren’t doing so hot.”
Sometimes, the word “advocate” can be intimidating. But it shouldn’t.
You don’t need to attend a certain amount of rallies or have a specific University degree. What is important is having the passion to make a difference and the drive to be a mental health champion.
You may already be an advocate without evening giving it a second thought. Have you ever volunteered for a crisis helpline, participated in a walk or run to raise funds for a mental health organization, asked someone to stop using language that perpetuates mental health stigma, or supported a friend who has a mental health illness? This is not a full list. But if you’ve answered yes to any of these, you’re most likely a mental health advocate.
If you didn’t answer yes to any of them, here’s a few tips to get you started:
Support a friend or family member. As an example, you can accompany them to an appointment, or listen to their story about mental health without judgment.
Volunteer at a local organization or hotline.
Speak to local leaders about increasing access to mental health services.
Educate yourself and spread helpful information about mental health. For example, read articles about mental health and share them on social media.
There are several ways individuals can become a mental health advocate. No action is too small. No matter how you decide to contribute, you are making a difference — and possibly saving a life.
Another way you can make a positive impact is by supporting mental health organizations. Unite for Change fuels the collective work of many charities all addressing the same cause, creating an easy way to broaden your impact and contribute to change. By donating to the Support Mental Health Fund you can help raise awareness, eliminate stigma, and increase access to care. Your donation will support life-changing services like crisis helplines, counselling, peer-to-peer support, advocacy efforts, and mental health education. Become a mental health champion today. Help ensure no one ever struggles alone or in silence.