Is it because you are afraid of repercussion? From friends, family, your work, other sources?
Is it because you are a private person, and would be unsure of talking about any illness, physical or mental?
Is it because you don't know how to?
Is it because you're afraid of being vulnerable?
Is it because once you step across that threshold you can't go back?
Is it because you are afraid of being defined by your illness?
Is it because you're afraid of what you might learn about yourself? About your loved ones?
Is it because you're afraid you can't make a difference?
Let me be the first one to say, these are all understandable reasons. When you begin to talk about mental health, a lot changes. It takes incredible strength and courage to do so. Let me address each of these fears as candidly as I can.
- This could happen. Technically, the ADA protects you at work, but it doesn't protect you from people's attitudes towards you. And it doesn't protect you at all when it comes to family and friends. Before you speak out, please know this. I would not be a good advocate if I pretended it was all roses and rainbows. But I will also tell you that as much as some people may surprise you with their lack of support, there will be people who surprise with support you never imagined. People that I never thought even paid attention to me have reached out to not only offer support, but to share their own stories. I've reconnected with numerous people from my past, and I've made some wonderful new friends. Remember that one out of every four people in the U.S. has a mental health condition. To understand the full impact of this, next time you're in a room with four other people, look around - one of those people, statistically at least, has a mental health condition. And like you, they may feel unsure and alone. By sharing your story, you let them know that they're not.
- There are absolutely ways to support mental health without having to overtly tell your own story, especially to start with. You can begin by donating to an organization or or sharing a social media post. If a friend is participating in a walk or an event, supporting them shows just that - you support them, and because it's important to them, and they're important to you, it is, by extension, important to you.
- This is the easiest one to answer: Ask. Us advocates are always sharing ideas. You don't have to reinvent the wheel, just join in.
- This is unavoidable, I'm sorry to say. When you open up about something, you're vulnerable. But please do not confuse vulnerability with weakness. It is anything but. It takes incredible strength to make yourself vulnerable, especially in the face of stigma.
- Also true. But I promise that the first step is the most difficult. If you'd like, think of advocacy as you would a physical goal - say, running a 5K. First, you have to say "Ok, I'm going to start running." Then, you have to get dressed in your running attire and leave the house. The first day, you may only make it a couple of blocks, or less. But now, you know you're physically capable of running, even if just a block or two for now. Each time you get dressed and go running, it becomes less scary. So no, you can't go back - just like once you go for a run you can't ever say "I've never gone for a run in my life." But you don't have to sprint out of the gates either. And you can hold steady at any point. There's nothing that says you have to run every single day (or nothing that forces you to at least). And there's nothing that says every advocacy action has to be grand. Dip your toes in, and go from there.
- There are two types of people who will define you by your illness: those who don't know/understand, and those who are determined to stigmatize. The first group, you can educate. Those are actually the people you want to reach, so if you find them, take it as an opportunity - people who are open to learning, but they just truly don't understand. People don't know what they don't know, and this is where advocacy can truly make a huge impact. This is your chance to really explain, to help them learn. Maybe even get them involved somehow if they're receptive - experience is the best teacher. Ask if they want to participate in a walk, or some other activity that you're doing. It doesn't have to be anything monumental. The second group, those who are determined to stigmatize, have made up their mind. It's unlikely that anything you do can change it. So don't waste your energy trying to. They aren't the people who want to surround yourself with so, don't, unless you absolutely have to. And most importantly, make sure that both of these groups know that you don't define yourself by your illness. Leading by example is always the best way, and sometimes, even if people understand a concept in theory they need to see what it looks like in action.