November 01, 2018

I take my mental health advocacy very seriously. I know firsthand how important progress towards acceptance is. Unfortunately, I also know how it feels to be discriminated against both for my mental illness and as an advocate: miserable, threatened, defeated, paranoid, or that I shouldn’t be advocating at all. Just a series of nasty remarks can have demoralizing effects lasting for months or more, not to mention the risk of damage to your reputation in the community.

In July, a mental health practitioner, with over twenty years of experience, bullied me during a closed-door meeting. Among other comments, she claimed my specific effort to do more with advocating for greater awareness, in her exact words, was not possible. I was shocked. Not only was this a negative attitude towards acceptance, it was clear she intended to oppose my advocacy despite my best intentions.

At the same time, I had inquired about applying for vendor tables with a suicide awareness event organized by a local community action group. As a regular attendee, I had already identified as a suicide attempt survivor, and was seeking ways I could help the cause. After being given the runaround for four weeks by the co-chair, in August the group’s chairperson initiated a membership vote on me without addressing how poorly my inquiry was handled. She also did not allow me any fair representation before this vote took place. I did not get voted in and was then excluded from all involvement with this group.

Situations like these have threatened my ability to advocate. This shows the likes of prejudice, stigma and bullying go far beyond high school, into every part of our society. It’s difficult to advocate for mental health without feeling the degrading or intimidating reach. The longer this trend continues, the tougher it will be to promote acceptance and end discrimination. I have had to ask myself, is mental health acceptance really possible after all?

You bet it is.

I did not start down this path two years ago only to abandon so many who need a voice for mental health. I want to encourage everyone to pursue their own advocacy goals. For me, I integrate mental health advocacy into my daily life through writing, volunteering and educating others. Using respect and mindfulness, I have learned how to work through the stigma in order to keep advocating.

Here are a few guidelines which will go a long way towards making a difference even while facing stigma in your networks or community.

State the Facts

On social media, it’s common for people to state their opinions or unproven points of view as facts. This typically accomplishes little except to stereotype those with mental illness. Since I am not a mental health professional, I make sure to present topics of discussion in a straight forward, objective manner while keeping my personal opinions to myself. Instead of making assumptions about mental health, I cite professional sources and verified facts in order to educate and challenge existing negative stereotypes about mental illness.

Avoid Confrontation

Many people may feel it is easier to care less about their ignorance and more about oppressing others. This leads to a lot of hostility towards people who are openly advocating for those with mental illness. However, we should not be hostile in return and need to remain civil in the face of opposition. Confrontation only takes away from our message as advocates. By maintaining our credibility and professionalism, we can lead by example and show that we are not a threat to society.

This is why I advocate with a priority of treating others with respect, and avoiding expressing inflammatory opinions, in person or online. I need to set a positive example as an advocate, as a person, and to stand up against discrimination if I ever hope to help improve mental health awareness.

Don’t Give Up

Mental health acceptance must be taken seriously. Countless people out there need someone who is strong, outspoken and capable to be their voice. They fear the risk of discrimination and stigma from their friends, family and coworkers. They fear losing their job. They fear being labeled as a threat to society.

You will likely encounter at least one member of your community who will not support your advocacy no matter how admirably you conduct yourself. What do you do? What if the stigma against you targets your sexual orientation, race, gender identity, mental health symptoms or your political views? If you respect those around you, remain determined to share your story, continue learning to be identifiable with more people and persist to volunteer in your community. We as advocates can still succeed regardless of stigma.

Thanks to NAMI, by reading these very words, you are witnessing proof that I have been able to challenge the stigma in my community. My strength is still enduring as I learn to become a better advocate each day. Helping to pave the way for others to find their strength, their voice or their courage to seek the professional help they need is what keeps me going. Living with mental illness is possible just as advocating for awareness is too.

Let us both, and with others like us, stand our ground against stigma to help change the world’s perception and acceptance of mental health. Together we have the ability to change people’s views and move the conversation about mental illness from fear to hope and recovery.

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.

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