Mental Health Advocacy: Is Our Work Valued? Are We Doing Enough?
If you choose to speak up about your experiences with bipolar disorder, and become an advocate, you take away the space stigma needs to thrive.
I think the biggest takeaway from my years of working in the mental health sector is that the work we do is undervalued and we underestimate the energy – all forms of energy- it takes to educate, nurture and support those who need it. I assume you were expecting something more positive?
Yeah, me too.
I’ve been writing openly about bipolar disorder for more than 5 years. I have been blogging since 2011. That’s a long time. In South Africa, specifically, I must say, recently things have improved with more and more activists coming out of the dark to shed light on stigma and the state of our health care facilities.
But is it enough? Are doing enough? Or are we faffing about waiting for the next news-worthy event for us to make some more noise. Because that’s all that could be to someone who won’t understand. Not can’t, but won’t. It’s noise.
I receive many messages from people who seek support, whether it be friends or family of the person living with illness or experienced trauma. So, I know there’s a need for support. Therapy is expensive so I suppose sparing an ear here and there is what the world needs. But as activists, a small group compared to the entire population, do not have enough ears, nor do we have the capacity to take on all that you carry too. Besides, that’s not our job. Our job is support you in managing how to carry your own load. Our job is to speak up and teach you and your loved ones the language to communicate exactly what you experience and develop strategies together, to mobilize yourself and live the best life you can.
As someone who has been in the game for a while, I have seen mental health ‘trend’. There is definitely some activity going on, but yet within that increase in activity, I still see activists operate in silos. There are not enough collaborations. There are not enough ‘cross-pollinations’ happening between organizations and individuals to allow for, not only more people who are suffering to be supported, but to actively expand the ways in which that support can be transformed for everyone. For example some forms of support are more suited to those who prefer CBT therapy, while others prefer a different form. But we won’t know if there is still stigma, that prevents people from seeking help, as well as people speaking about what truly works for them.
So coming back to my initial point where I believe the work is undervalued, and in light of mental health affecting so many different aspects in our lives, work and the economy included. Why, if it has such a huge impact, why are we undervaluing our activists? I know of so, so many activists who also receive countless messages asking for support, who get the dirty look if they are turned away because of time or that the person prefers not to pay. It is after all ‘just’ mental health, not anything to do with something tangible like cancer or AIDS. I think as someone with the experience of all the lows, I try my utmost to support where I can because I know where the person has been. In fact, I decided to share some of the posts I wrote on my new website. I wanted to re-share the stories because I see the patterns in my life and my brain cycles. And as it goes onto the next cycle, I learn new lessons.
I think another point I’d like to bring across that is that not all activists target the same audience. I think there is space for activists of various backgrounds to provide support. You find those in communities for example, where the resources are not as adequately maintained as they should be, or non-existent for that fact, but there is a huge need for more online-based resources. Because once the person goes home after attending a support-group at a community hall or church, they’re back on their phones consuming possibly triggering content from fake news to graphic content. Even debates can be triggering. On my Instagram feed a while back, I questioned the groups, our online communities, Whatsapp groups being “safe spaces”. Are they? Because if they are not becoming “safer” to share and speak openly about mental health issues, then are we as activists really changing things for the better? Think of “mom” Whatsapp groups as an example. Are you free to openly share about your maternal mental health openly, without judgement?
I don’t want to be a Negative Nancy, but I believe we have a long way to go in creating safe spaces within ourselves first. I still struggle with this at times, even as mental health activist. I think going forward, I want to emphasize the importance of the work, because it’s a whole lot of inner work, that those who speak up, do. Communicate it often, as a tangible asset, as a service, as a way forward, the way forward. Because when you speak up, you take away the space that stigma occupies. And I do understand that there’s such a thing as privacy. But there’s a huge difference between keeping things private and keeping things private. The difference? The shame between the lines. Our activists plod through that, plod through the shame- but we need to value this more. And we need to encourage for more individuals to do the same. This is an important measure of success we should consider shedding light on.