July is Disability Pride Awareness Month. While disability visibility has gotten better over the years, there are still a ways to go when it comes to dismantling ableism. Mental illness, in particular, is attached to several negative, dangerous stigmas, despite the fact that 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness. Moreover, the CDC has found that 36 million US women have a disability; another 20% of US women experience mental illness. This makes disability and mental health a women’s issue, but one that is often overlooked due to ableism and misogyny.
Thankfully, as the disability rights movement continues to make waves, that includes mental health advocacy as well. Here are six ways to be a mental health advocate for yourself and your community.
Learn about mental illness
Much of what we see in the media in portraying mental illness is inaccurate. Films, television shows, and books often portray mental illness as something that makes a person scary or dangerous. These notions are harmful and inaccurate for a myriad of reasons, one of the worst being it instills a feeling of shame in people experiencing mental illness.
Take the time to learn what mental illness actually is and hear the story of people with lived experiences. Learn about mental health conditions, the warning signs, and ways to support people. Websites like The Mighty are an excellent place to read personal essays from the perspective of disabled people. Other good sources for mental health information, in general, include the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America and Verywell Mind.
Drop ableist words from your vocabulary
We casually use ableist language every day without realizing it. Some people have reclaimed these words, but they’re often used in contexts where they insult someone’s character based on their behavior. You’ve probably used or heard of one or more of the following words used by others:
Not only are a lot of these words outdated, but they’re also used to describe medical conditions or symptoms, not people’s behaviors or moods. It’s hard to drop these from our vocabulary because they’re so ingrained, but we should all make a concerted effort not to use them—and understand the implications such words have on others.
Stop using mental illness as adjectives
Similar to ableist insults, people often use mental illnesses to describe moods. People say they are “so OCD” because they are super organized; people say they “are ADHD” because they are energetic, and people say “they’re bipolar” if they’re moody. These are actual conditions and diagnoses that people live with every day, and it’s not okay to use them to describe your mood. Not only does it downplay real illnesses, but it also isn’t an adjective for the word you’re looking for. Use actual adjectives to describe your mood and behavior. For example, instead of saying “I’m OCD,” you can easily say that you are super organized.
Support friends’ mental health
Everyone struggles with their mental health from time to time. And, while you never know unless they tell you, many of your friends likely deal with mental illness every day, given that it affects 20% of the population. When, and if, you have the emotional bandwidth, reach out to your friends and let them know that you’re there to support them if they ever need it. With the stigma still surrounding mental health, it’s hard for many people to feel comfortable reaching out for help. By showing people that you’re someone who can be trusted and will listen empathetically, you are making a difference in their lives.
Share mental health resources
While it’s great and important to reach out to others when you can, at the end of the day, you are not a therapist or a mental health expert. You need to know what you can handle and what you can’t, and it’s helpful to know what resources are available for your friends if you’re concerned that they need medical attention. Knowing when and how to direct people to mental health resources is crucial in helping not only your friends but also yourself. As mentioned earlier NAMI is a great resource for anyone struggling with mental health issues. If you think it’s an emergency situation—that someone may harm themselves or others—call the National Prevention Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.
Take care of your mental health
They say you can’t pour from an empty cup, and that saying is true for mental health. Helping others is great and important work, but it’s hard to help anyone if you are struggling yourself and not getting help. Pay attention to your mental health. Reach out to get help if you need it. In addition to the resources provided earlier, you can visit Psychology Today’s website to schedule a visit with a mental health specialist—therapist, counselor, psychologist, etc.—to fit your needs based on your issues, finances, insurance and more.
Advocating for mental health is an ongoing journey, much like mental health itself, but it’s a worthwhile one. The more we speak openly about mental health, the more we learn ways to help others and ourselves.