If you work hard to raise awareness and lessen the stigma surrounding mental health conditions, you’ve taken the first step.

Attitudes toward mental illness have changed in recent years, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Mental health advocates are an essential part of this work.

The good news is anyone can be one.

Maybe you’re a teen who wants to raise awareness about anxiety and depression in your high school. Or perhaps you have personal knowledge of a mental health condition and want to speak out about your needs and those of people living similar experiences.

Regardless of your age and background, there are many ways — big and small — to be a mental health advocate.

An advocate, in general, is someone who supports and speaks up on behalf of a specific cause or group of people. A mental health advocate focuses on mental health topics.

A mental health advocate becomes aware of an issue or need and then speaks about it to others, so they, too, become aware or gain knowledge.

Advocate efforts may include:

  • educating people at school, work, or community about a specific topic
  • speaking on behalf of groups or organizations that practice activism
  • speaking on behalf of those who cannot or will not
  • researching a topic and sharing your findings
  • lobbying to influence public policy
  • developing a strategy to amplify an issue or provide visibility to a marginalized group

Audrey Grunst, a licensed adult and adolescent therapist in Northbrook, Illinois, says mental health advocates are people who show up in a public way. And these ways may include:

  • blogging
  • posting on social media
  • volunteering at information booths
  • showing up for awareness events such as walks
  • participating in other grassroots efforts

In sum, there are no unique formulas to be an advocate.

You can find your own way to be a spokesperson for a cause close to your heart. You can be an advocate for yourself and others.

You may not be comfortable going to in-person events, for example. But developing a blog or engaging in online conversations may feel natural.

Is activism the same as advocacy?

While there are definitely similarities between advocates and activists, they’re not necessarily the same.

According to the U.S. Institute of Diplomacy and Human Rights, activism is an action-oriented effort. Advocacy, on the other hand, involves publicly representing or speaking on behalf of a cause.

Activism also involves speaking up but often includes organizing and participating in activities to promote, protest, or lead change regarding a controversial topic. These activities can include:

  • social media or community campaigns
  • petitions
  • public demonstrations
  • boycotts

Both activists and advocates work toward social change and aim to represent those who most need it. You can be both an advocate and an activist.

In fact, most activists are advocates for their causes, while advocates are not necessarily activists.

A mental health advocate is “anyone who speaks out against the stigma associated with mental health issues and promotes seeking medical help for mental health issues,” explains Indra Cidambi, a certified psychiatrist in Summit, New Jersey.

However, this doesn’t involve fighting for social justice. Instead, she says, “it seeks medical justice.”

Is advocacy the same as allyship?

No. Although many people use the terms interchangeably, they’re not the same.

Being an ally can be one-to-one or a group effort. It involves supporting a community you’re not a part of. It’s amplifying their voices, stepping up to shield and support them, and contributing to their progress.

For example, white folks can act as allies for Black or Latino communities by being inclusive, standing up to racism and hate expressions, and providing safe spaces.

Allyship doesn’t necessarily include speaking out publicly or becoming a spokesperson. Advocacy does.

Without mental health advocates, we would likely still be talking about mental health conditions in whispers.

At some point, an advocate spoke publicly about depression, schizophrenia, or domestic violence. That provided much-needed visibility to these issues, and that may have started a change.

But even today, as we speak more freely about mental health, many people still face stigma and barriers to treatment.

“Only increased awareness and addressment can help increase access to treatment,” says Cidambi. By increasing awareness, advocates help lower these barriers, including the lack of insurance coverage for mental health services.

On an individual level, advocates who openly talk about their experiences with mental health conditions can help people feel less alone and encourage them to seek treatment. They may also encourage others who don’t live with these conditions to become more aware and empathetic.

This is why advocacy is also vital on a community-wide level. And mental health advocacy helps us all be more tolerant, inclusive, empathetic, and active in supporting those who live with mental illness.

It can be challenging to advocate for others in your community if you don’t advocate for yourself first. But it can be hard to know how to get started.

Here are some ways you can try to advocate for yourself:

  • Understand your own mental health condition. For instance, “be aware that good mental health doesn’t mean an absence of a diagnosed mental health condition,” says Cidambi.
  • Share your diagnosis. Letting others know about your condition and your needs and triumphs helps them widen their perspective on the topic.
  • Have a plan of action. Develop clear goals for yourself and outline the steps required to achieve them. Doing this will enable you to clearly communicate your needs with others.
  • Ask for help. Get support from friends, family, and co-workers. Reach out to others with similar experiences who may be able to provide you with insight.
  • Reach out to organizations. Local organizations that work with your mental health condition can provide you with information and help you learn to advocate for yourself.
  • Develop a blog or website. Talk about your experiences, your needs and concerns, and how you feel others can support you and others with similar experiences.

You don’t need to live with a mental health condition to advocate for others. However, it’s important to educate yourself before trying to do so.

Here are some ideas to consider for how to advocate for others living with mental health conditions:

  • Educate yourself. Read about the topic to ensure that you’re sharing accurate information online and in person.
  • Donate. If you have the means, you can donate money to mental health organizations to help support their efforts and then share this effort with those around you.
  • Practice conscious language. Correct people when they use stigmatizing language. Be careful with your own language as well.
  • Be present. Go to events that aim to raise awareness about or money for mental health problems. Actively promote these events and speak on their behalf.
  • Volunteer. Give your time to local mental health organizations working to raise awareness about mental health conditions and improve access to mental health services.
  • Reach out to local lawmakers. Voice your desire and support for better access to mental health treatment, particularly for underserved communities.
  • Work for an advocacy organization. You may consider a related career path and making advocacy work your job.
  • Stay focused and take care of your mental health. Realize that you can’t do everything. Grunst explains that self-care is also an important part of advocacy work. You can’t help others if you’re experiencing burnout, for example.

Advocates play an important vocal role in reducing stigmatization and stereotypes surrounding mental health conditions.

Mental health advocacy also involves speaking to decision-makers to request equal access to mental health services. Encouraging people to seek treatment and provide them with the information to do so is also key.

Anyone can become a mental health advocate, and there are many ways to advocate for yourself or others.

Speaking up is a vital part of changing perceptions around mental health and increasing access to treatment and services.