Two years ago, I faced a daunting time in my life. The core symptoms of depression and anxiety I experienced for two-thirds of my life had gone mostly untreated and progressed to peak levels. I could not grasp even the simplest of career goals due to the crippling effects of anxiety-driven indecision. I had been bullied both as a teenager and as an adult. I was never fortunate enough to experience social acceptance. I had reached my mid-30s, but still lived with my parents and felt too far behind my peers for there to be any hope of catching up.
I was unaware of anything I could do to strengthen myself before confronting my mental illness. For at least 15 years, I have walked amongst others despite feeling so lost inside that I was practically enduring one long and drawn out near-suicidal experience. I literally felt trapped, alone and nearly out of time.
The very first time I explored potential treatment was with a local counselor in September 2016. He helped me to feel empowered about myself and started me down the path towards acceptance, advocating and treatment. So, the day after my 35th birthday (which also happens to be World Mental Health Day), I set my heart and soul on facing my fears and confronting my mental illnesses. I started my own mental health advocacy website and made a commitment to blog for 128 days in a row to show my dedication to this cause.
Now, two years later, I’m a full-fledged mental health advocate. I present NAMI In Our Voice and am trained in suicide prevention. I take every opportunity available to make the world better for people with mental illness. I have not attended any formal classes nor had a mentor. I don't even have the best inter-personal social skills. I simply believed in myself and have confidence that I can and should work to achieve greater mental health awareness and advocacy.
Through my experience, I’ve found that anyone can be a mental health advocate whether it’s raising awareness through writing, volunteering or calling your representatives. I am not an expert on advocating but I’m constantly learning about advocacy in general and mental health issues. I try to be humble and keep myself in check from becoming over-confident. Mental health is very complicated and ever-changing. I find there is always more to learn regardless of the circumstances or the issues involved. Here are a few things I’ve learned that can help you in your mental health advocacy efforts.
Be Emotionally Prepared
If my most difficult experiences include suicide, then I must be able to manage those harsh emotions before I can hope to advocate about them effectively. A person living with mental illness should first make sure they are prepared to handle any additional emotional pressure, such as discussing sensitive experiences.
I have found that it takes strength to endure my mental illness and to advocate. Yet, this is a strength that people can and do possess. With attention to detail and being prepared to shoulder the extra burden, people like me can go a long way with effective advocacy.
There may be a dozen ways for me to express what a certain symptom is like from my point of view. Though, not everyone's experiences or symptoms are the same. I try to personally relate with anyone that I hope to reach out to because I want to help them. Yet, not everyone will find it easy to relate to me whether they have a mental health condition or not.
It is important to tailor your message for the specific audience in order to advocate effectively and be more relatable. For example, if you are giving a presentation to kids or young people, you can include quotes or inspiring phrases from pop culture. Personally, I like to use the quote, “I can do this all day,” from Marvel's Steve Rogers/Captain America. The more people that identify with my message, the more I can create social bonds—which can empower them to improve the quality of their lives and possibly the lives of others.
It is important to advocate and adjust your message for people of different backgrounds. You will encounter a diverse range of people including those of different age groups, ethnicities, diagnoses, faiths, sexual orientation or gender identity. They can also include people dealing with the criminal justice system, individuals battling addiction or who have co-occurring mental health conditions, suicide survivors or victims of loss, veterans, as well as loved ones of those with mental illness. These are the people that need advocates who respect, empathize and understand their uniqueness.
For example, I am a suicide survivor. I may feel driven to share these sensitive experiences or help others like myself. On the other hand, I need to be mindful of who is around me, where I am and how I share my own personal experiences. Mental health topics, such as suicide, are not easy for everyone to understand, accept or handle on their own. Some suicide attempt survivors, and especially survivors of suicide loss, have a difficult time with this issue simply because it can be triggering and very emotional.
By making sure I am as appropriate as possible with my writing, my attitude and community service volunteering, I can create a more positive environment for mental health acceptance, raise awareness and set a lasting example for others to respect and follow.
Two years ago, I faced a daunting time in my life. I felt worn out by years of internal suffering, with negativity often gnawing at my heels every day. But knowing I had the chance and ability to overcome my demons was just as powerful an inspiration as the desperation of feeling that I was living on borrowed time.
So, I remind myself, I can do this. I can choose life. I should choose it. I am meant to be here. I own this moment, same as any of you can, too. I can live my life and advocate for people like me.
In the words of Captain America—and a fitting mantra:
"I can do this all day."
Jim R. Irion is a mental health advocate and a dedicated community service volunteer who focuses on empowerment and anti-bullying. Jim is currently a NAMI member, and is a trained NAMI In Our Own Voice presenter. He has also been trained in QPR Gatekeeper suicide prevention.