Empowerment through advocacy

I am a mental health advocate. I live it, I breath it and I will work endlessly to spread word about the cause.

I am the President of ThinkMental, the KCL Mental Health Society, that works to remove the stigma around mental health and support students. This will be my third year working within ThinkMental, and my passion for our work grows day by day. Creating spaces for students to discuss mental health and providing them with resources for support, we feel, is an essential service that our team is more than delighted to provide. We have seen firsthand the difference that our effort can make to our peers lives, improving moods and encouraging those that need help to seek it, taking that first step in the right direction. 

Yet, even without the peer support groups I host, the platforms I provide for students to speak about mental health and the awareness campaigns run, I am still, and always will be, a mental health advocate. This is because I’m honest about my experiences and my feelings. Being a mental health advocate isn’t a physical role, it is an attitude and transparency surrounding your experiences that will benefit both you, and everyone that you will come into contact with . 

Back when I was gripped in the deepest depths of my mental illness, ashamed, frightened and lonely, I would never have imagined that I would one day be able to be honest about my experience. But now I am. Most of the time, because being honest is hard and it’s exhausting. It’s scary to put the most vulnerable part of you out for consumption and hold your breath waiting for a response. It can also be  empowering.

It’s freeing to be blunt and honest about how you are feeling. Not having to search through the files in your brain for an appropriate and polite response, which really benefits no one. However, it is not possible to be an open book all the time. There are still times I struggle to be honest about my situation, which makes me feel like a terrible mental health advocate. I feel like a fake, talking about the importance of being open about mental health and supporting one another, with a huge smile on my face, when inside I am struggling silently. I think that’s ok though, it’s the reality of mental health. It will not always be possible for me to share my ups and downs when I am struggling to get through them, but eventually I will gather the courage and that is what matters.

Through advocacy, such as projects like ThinkMental, I have transformed my distress into something meaningful and worthwhile. I have let it build me, not break me. On a personal level, I never want anyone to feel as alone, or as hopeless as I did. On a grander scale, I want mental health to be treated with equal importance to physical health, and a more compassionate and educated society to support those that need it. I am immensely proud of myself, because I have turned the part of my life that almost killed me into a force for good, and a driving motivation that makes me a better person everyday.

Advocacy isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to talk about something that until fairly recently has been rather ‘taboo’ to discuss. I have been met with my fair share of hurtful comments and misunderstandings around our aims. Quite often, people that I speak to our very keen to establish that they don’t (whispers) have a mental health condition, and that they are ‘normal.’ They don’t mean to cause me, a person with a mental health condition, any harm.  They simply want to distance themselves from the heavily stigmatised perceptions of mental health, which is exactly what we work to break.

Once, whilst hosting a bake sale in aid of the Samaritans, a person caught sight of the homemade cakes on the table and started to approach us. We made eye contact, I grinned and said hello, pleased that someone wanted to engage with our work.  They then saw our society banner, which states our aim of ‘ending the stigma around mental health,’ and promptly turned on their heel and walked away, as if we didn’t exist. To be associated with a mental health cause was too much for them. I wanted to shout after them that my depression isn’t contagious, but felt too deflated to do so. Most importantly, I will still be here, waiting for when they need to have a conversation, because I know that attitudes and circumstances change. 

The rewards of advocacy, both personal and for the community, definitely outweigh the  struggles. Whilst walking through Waterloo station, on my way home from the bake sale previously mentioned, where someone had been physically repulsed by our mission, I was stopped by a stranger. He looked like a perfectly normal, middle aged, beginning to bald white man in a suit, on his way home to his family after a day at the office. He apologised for holding me up, but said that he couldn’t walk by the Samaritans bucket I was carrying without making a contribution, because the Samaritans had saved his life when he was at crisis point a few years ago. The importance of the cause that I advocate for, struck through to my core and reassured me that the work I do was something that I should continue to push for as hard as I can. It is a moment I will never forget.

I would urge all of you to become mental health advocates in your day to day lives. You can do this by challenging stigma and discrimination that you hear in the conversations around you. Challenge people’s uses of derogatory language and appropriation of real medical conditions. The weather is not ‘bipolar’ today, tell your friends to use a thesaurus to find a better word. You can create peer projects to support your community. You can donate to mental health charities. You can lobby for mental health services. Most importantly, you can be honest about your experiences (as much as you feel comfortable in doing so) because this will encourage those around you to open up to. Sometimes, you have to be the person to put yourself out there first, but I promise that there will be many people desperate to meet you halfway. The connections I have made, when I am being truly genuine and vulnerable, are the connections I consider truly worthwhile in my life, and I am grateful for those that feel they can reciprocate my honesty.

So the next time someone asks how you are, take a deep breath and tell them the truth. However great, ugly or impolite it might seem. Breath in, and feel the relief and empowerment of finally being honest.

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