The Power of Peer Advocacy

Of all the wellness tips and techniques I’ve learned, the most impactful and surest way for me to stay healthy is through peer advocacy. Sharing my story and providing hope to others gives me purpose and value. It also reminds me how far I’ve come and how important it is to practice all of the strategies that I have learned along the way. After all, I don’t want to be a hypocrite who says one things but does another. So every time I give a presentation, teach a class, or run a support group, I get the chance to check in with myself. Am I practicing what I’m preaching? It’s a built in self-accountability system, for which I’m incredibly grateful. By helping others, I help myself. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

The value of peer advocacy cannot be overstated. I remember sitting in the hospital or various partial programs thinking, “where are all the people who are living well with mental illness?” I wanted to hear from someone who suffered from severe depression, anxiety, bipolar–someone feeling as hopeless as I did–but had come out on the other side and was doing well. I could read and learn all about mental illness and recovery, but until I saw someone on the outside who was managing their illness and leading a life in recovery, I couldn’t believe that it was possible for me, too. Sure, we read about celebrities with mental illness, which is brave and important, but I wasn’t a celebrity and those examples just weren’t relatable to me. I remember thinking, “If this famous person who has tons of money and resources and support can barely survive, what are my chances?” More often than not, their stories depressed me more.

Sadly, it is not easy to find people with mental health issues who are willing to speak out, especially if they are doing well. There is a definite risk involved and it’s foolish to think otherwise. While some employers may treat workers with mental illness fairly and respectfully, many will not. Once I disclosed my mental health condition, I was treated like a liability after 15 years of exemplary evaluations. Every classroom issue was automatically attributed to something I was doing wrong. Eventually, it reached the point where I had to resign to maintain my health and dignity. Despite valiant efforts to end the stigma surrounding mental illness, it remains as strong as ever and it silences peers who could give so much hope to others. I get it, though. I really do. When you work like hell to get yourself employed again, you certainly don’t want to risk your job by revealing a mental health condition. Rather than seeing the ability to manage an illness as a testament to a person’s strength, bravery, and resilience, some will, undoubtedly, view it as a weakness and treat him/her/them as less than.

Through my advocacy, I hope to inspire others to speak out and share their truth. Right now I am the only person who is trained in our NAMI affiliate to teach classes, speak to organizations, and facilitate support groups. There are others who are trained in one or the other, but often it comes down to me. And I can only do so much. We need others and our impact can be great. Until society regularly sees people with mental illness who are skilled, knowledgeable, and successful, the stereotypes and misperceptions will continue. Often the ones who do reveal their mental health conditions have already established themselves as experts or celebrities so they are already acknowledged and accepted in their careers. Of course it helps to hear from those people, but where is the voice of the working class person– the group to which the majority belongs. We are here, but we cannot be heard until more of us speak out and act in ways that dispel all those dangerous misconceptions. If all society sees of mental illness is the lone shooter or a ranting celebrity, how can society change its view on mental health conditions?

Please consider joining me in the fight to give a voice to mental illness–that it isn’t something to fear. It doesn’t just affect that one eccentric relative that others tell funny stories about–or won’t talk about at all. Since one out of four people in the US has a mental illness, chances are you know someone right now who is suffering. It might be the person you least expect, too. Most people with mental health conditions are experts at hiding it, (which is sad since they should be using the little bit of energy they have for self-care). Furthermore, no one is immune. I never thought it could happen to me. Until it did.

It’s time to end the silence that perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental illness. By sharing and listening to each other’s stories, we validate each other and strengthen our collective voice. As peers, we have the power to truly make a difference in the way that no other source can.

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