5 Mistakes Mental Health Advocates Need to Stop Making

Many people refer to themselves as “mental health advocates” or stress that mental health awareness is important to them. From celebrities to YouTubers to Facebook friends, I’ve seen many people around me proudly state that mental health is of utmost importance to them. Don’t get me wrong — that’s great! But I’ve noticed recurring themes with some self-proclaimed mental health advocates that definitely do not support those with mental illnesses. We can all make mistakes. However, these are some common and persistent mistakes which end up hurting rather than helping the cause.

  1. Refusing to “get political”

There is a common misconception that mental health can and should be separated from political issues. Some people who openly talk about mental health on social media choose not to talk about movements like Black Lives Matter because they don’t want to “go off brand” or “get too political.”

But the thing is…mental health is political. Political injustice not only negatively impacts our mental health, but has shaped our very perception of what mental health is and how mental distress is pathologized and treated. The more that mental health advocates deny the intrinsic relationship between mental health and politics, the less they are able to support others in mental distress.

For instance, when white mental health advocates refuse to talk about racism, then they also refuse to acknowledge how racism affects mental health and how it is intrinsic to the structure of the mental health field. They refuse to understand how racism influences diagnostic criteria, or how psychiatric hospitals contribute to the carceral state, or how police intervention in a mental health crisis is especially dangerous for Black folks. That’s why you can’t claim to be a mental health advocate or activist, yet be uncomfortable publicly supporting movements like Black Lives Matter.

Many mental health professionals also tend to avoid “getting political.” However, by not recognizing systemic issues in their own field, they often perpetuate (either directly or indirectly) the idea that mental illness is an individual’s problem. Framing mental illness as a personal problem that can be overcome by simply “changing your perspective” is a form of victim-blaming that erases social and political influences.

2. Excusing systemic issues based on your own experiences

Many people first become interested in mental health advocacy/activism because of their personal experience. While that is a great jumping off point, it’s crucial to understand that your experiences are not indicative of all experiences. Your personal positive experience could have been influenced by inhabiting a privileged social location (i.e. being white, cisgender, wealthy, etc.). So even if you love your therapist, or have never had an issue with misdiagnosis because of race or gender, or have never felt unsafe in a mental health care facility, that doesn’t mean that plenty of other people are not privileged enough to be in the same boat.

3. Avoiding accountability in the name of “self-care”

People make mistakes. Most people I know (including myself) have said hurtful or ignorant things in the past. When that happens, it’s important to acknowledge the harm you may have caused and take tangible steps to be more aware of your impact. However, if someone mentions that your behavior was harmful (even if it wasn’t intentional), it’s incredibly toxic to use self-care as an excuse to not confront the problem. I see this happen often with social media influencers, who, when called out for harmful behavior, respond by refusing to engage with the criticism because it’s “bad for their mental health.”

Discomfort is often inevitable with self-reflection. Weaponizing “mental health” and “self-care” as ways to avoid taking accountability is not only offensive to those you have harmed, but a form of gaslighting by essentially shifting the blame and making the person criticizing your behavior look like they’re harming you.

Accountability can be anxiety-inducing. Dealing with uncomfortable feelings of guilt and shame through avoidance is not “self-care.” It’s not good for you and it’s also not good for the other person/people involved whose mental well-being you are now compromising by refusing to acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused. Mental health advocates should embrace accountability, because it leads to personal growth and harm reduction. Instead of rejecting growth, utilize your own support system and healthy coping mechanisms if you are struggling to address the harm you’ve caused.

4. Ignoring and mistreating those with heavily stigmatized or lesser-known symptoms

Through my time working with mental health-related organizations and cultivating my new social media platforms, I have met many wonderful folks who identify as mental health advocates/activists. However, through my activist work as well as my own recovery, I have also come in contact with many people who claim to support anyone with mental illness, but then will call someone they don’t like “psychotic.” I’ve had to leave a mental health support group before because other mentally ill people without psychotic disorders kept asking me invasive and judgmental questions about psychosis.

It’s important to remember that “mental health” encompasses a whole range of experiences. Creating false hierarchies between mental illnesses (i.e “I’m not an actual crazy person!”) and/or ignoring lesser-known symptoms like dissociation or psychosis contributes to stigma surrounding already widely misunderstood conditions. Similarly, if you leave your bias about certain diagnoses unchecked, you then create a hostile environment for folks with those mental illnesses — which is certainly not “mental health advocacy.”

As I said in an old blog post “…only supporting those you can relate to doesn’t necessarily do anything to challenge stigma or educate folks on lesser-known experiences.” Remember to uplift those who have different experiences than you, rather than just those whose experiences are palatable.

5. Focusing too much on “awareness” instead of action

The way “mental health awareness” is discussed, it sometimes feels like an empty phrase. That’s not to say that “awareness” is bad, but that using it as a catch-all can lead to specific (often systemic) issues being ignored.

When you say “I support mental health awareness,” ask yourself what exactly you mean by that. If you’re not sure, then you should familiarize yourself with the specific issues that mentally ill folks face. “Awareness” is not meaningful without some kind of call-to-action. What exactly should people be aware of, and what actions should we take?

So here is my call-to-action. Instead of perpetuating harmful behavior disguised as advocacy, try taking these five steps instead:

  1. Analyze what you are currently doing as a mental health advocate and ask yourself: how can I improve this?
  2. Learn about structural issues in mental health care through essays, podcasts, speeches, social media, etc.
  3. Stand in solidarity with marginalized communities by donating money and promoting their activist work.
  4. Reach out to mental health-related organizations in your community.
  5. Uplift narratives of those with lived experiences different than your own.

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