To advocate literally means to 'give a voice.' That's what mental health advocates do: We use our experiences to give a voice - and a face - to something that's still considered shameful, something that's still unacceptably stigmatized - mental illness. We do this because we hope that one day, our collective noise will finally end the silence forever and replace stigma and shame with compassion, understanding and acceptance.
I am so excited, and so privileged to be working with young mental health advocates as the lead of the Jack Talks program at Jack.org, spending time with some amazing young people who really want to change the world and make their voices heard. We've been learning so much from each other, and I can't wait for what comes next.
Here are 5 things I've personally learned, or noticed, or reflected on, over my years of speaking up for mental health:
1. People are still uncomfortable with this topic, and that's why we need to keep talking about it.
Sometimes when I speak at high school assemblies, there's inattentiveness, talking, giggling, joking around and 'tuning out' in various ways. This used to really bother me, because it is disrespectful. But I've tried to use these experiences as fuel to try to make my story and my message more engaging and relatable, and to meet my young audience where they are.
But I've also realized that there are lots of people who become very uncomfortable when this topic is brought up, and that laughing or joking or not paying attention can be their way to 'push away' something that they're not yet ready to face. Similar to the way we might use sarcasm or humour to mask our true feelings when we feel vulnerable in front of our friends. So many young people still grow up in homes and communities where mental health, and mental illness, are not openly talked about, where there's shame, silence and discomfort around it, where they hear comments about 'crazy' people and learn that mental health is not relevant to them. So they push it away when they hear it - 'Not me, not me, maybe those people, but never me.'
I've learned not to take it personally. I've learned that not everyone will be ready for the message that we all have mental health. But I hope that they leave my talk with even a tiny seed of new awareness. It may takes years to grow into full understanding, but it's an important start. And I've learned that as advocates, we still have far to go to erase the stigma, and that the solution to this problem is to speak up more, not less.
2. I'm anxious every time, but it does get easier. And it's SO worth it.
I know my own story and my key messages so well at this point, I don't need as much preparation before a talk, and I'm able to speak without a script. But I still get anxious. Part of it, of course, is that I do still struggle with social anxiety and generalized anxiety. But anxiety around public speaking is something that pretty much everyone experiences. Being vulnerable in front of strangers is scary. It's unpredictable. Sometimes I'm not even sure what I'm afraid of exactly, I'm just aware that my heart and mind are racing and I'm getting super sweaty.
But something magical happens when I get up on stage. It's like I'm in a trance, I zone in on the first thing I want to say, and the rest just flows out of me. In bigger crowds, the audience kind of fades into a mass of colour and light, and it's just me and my story and the words I'm saying right now. And all that matters is that I keep talking. Sometimes I pause, drink water, look at my notes, but then I keep going. And at the end, there's a whirlwind of applause, gratitude, admiration, hugs, and many stories being shared with me in return. I often have the experience of forgetting what I said on stage - a kind of performance 'black out.' But that's okay. I know it had an impact, because of the wonderful things people say to me afterwards. I'm fully living in the moment, and anxiety quickly turns to exhilaration, joy and connection.
Over the years, I've learned self-care strategies to manage my anxiety around public speaking:
- I do prepare and practice. Not excessively, but it does help to talk everything out to myself, to actually say it out loud. Occasionally I will record myself just talking it out on my iPhone, and listen to it so I get familiar with the way I like to phrase things.
- I make sure to go to bed early the night before and get a good night's sleep. Feeling rested can make all the difference in the world.
- I always show up to an event early. There's nothing more stressful than rushing and being late when you're already feeling anxious.
- It can be helpful to tell myself 'I'm excited!' whenever I feel scared. The bodily sensations of 'excitement' are very similar to anxiety, it's the thoughts around it that are different, so I try to change those thoughts - 'I'm excited, this is going to be awesome, I love doing this!'
- Sometimes, I need to take it easy after a talk, and give myself some time to decompress after the rush of emotions. This might mean taking the rest of the day off, or making sure I don't schedule important stuff right afterwards.
- I remind myself of the impact and the positive outcomes, and try to avoid dwelling on what I feel went 'wrong' when I was speaking. Most people don't notice the stumbles, and they won't know if you forgot to say something. And even if just a few people leave the talk thinking differently about mental health, it's all worth it.
3. Sharing my story is an important part of my recovery journey.
Other than my years of therapy, sharing my story has been the most important and helpful way for me to grow in self-awareness and understand my own journey. Speaking about my experiences and weaving in messages of hope and recovery actually changes the story I've been telling myself. All of us form a story or narrative in our minds of who we are in this world, where we've come from and where we're going. For most of my life, this story was all about what a failure and worthless human being I was, how I would never belong, never succeed at anything, and that the world would be better off without me. What a horrible story to be living!
Being a mental health advocate has changed that. Consciously shaping my story over the years has really helped me move away from this narrative. I've been able to build a new narrative, a story where I had some really difficult challenges and some really tough times, but I ultimately learned not to be ashamed, that it was okay to speak up and get help, and that I could overcome obstacles and start my journey of recovery. And then I started using my story to make a positive impact on others, and here I am today. That's a much better story to be living!
Another reason why speaking up has been important to my recovery is the validation that I get from others. I used to be judged harshly for being different, and I judged myself even more. But that's not what happens when I share my story. People call me courageous, inspiring, and strong. People treat me with respect and admiration. They show gratitude, appreciation, and understanding. And I get so many stories back, showing me that I'm not alone. I feel accepted. I feel like I belong. All of this validation helps with building my new narrative of hope, recovery, self-worth and strength. And with this amazing support from so many people, I grow stronger every day.
4. I constantly see the impact of speaking up about mental health.
Hearing someone's raw, personal story and witnessing someone else's courageous vulnerability motivates a lot of people to open up about what they're going through. They may have an 'aha' moment and finally start to understand what they've been struggling with. Starting the conversation is like opening a door - when we speak up about mental health, it lets others know that it's okay to talk and reach out, that recovery is possible and there's absolutely no reason to be ashamed. Many, many people have opened up to me about their own experiences after a talk. Mostly, they want to be heard. Understood. Validated. Like we all do. And I think the most helpful response is just to listen, empathize, and remind them that they matter and they deserve support and help.
Hearing advocates share their own journey towards taking ownership and leadership of mental health also inspires people to join the movement and take action. Students have come up to me eager to start the conversation at their schools, and parents and teachers have told me they've gained new understanding of how to proactively talk about mental health at home and in the classroom. Young people have learned skills around how to help their friends - and themselves! I hope that everyone leaves a talk thinking about mental health in a new way, starts questioning the stigma, and starts including all of humanity on the mental health spectrum. Because this isn't an 'us' versus 'them' issue, 'normal' people versus 'the mentally ill.' Mental health is relevant to all of us, and when that message gets across loud and clear, that's the greatest impact of all.
The impact is what makes being an advocate so rewarding. The look on people's faces when they finally feel understood. The empowerment they feel when they realize that they can change the status quo of stigma, that it doesn't have to be this way, that a revolution is happening and they can help lead it. Never underestimate the power of vulnerability, openness, honesty and speaking up for things that matter. The more real you are, the more people will listen, and what they hear can be life-changing.
5. There are so many ways to be an advocate.
Being a mental health advocate doesn't just mean getting up on stage in front of a pile of people. It also means giving a voice to this issue and starting conversations with your family and friends, with your peers at school, with your colleagues at work, with your online social media network, and in all the different social contexts you find yourself. It means taking ownership of the topic, and deciding that you are going to be a leader in how you think, talk about and deal with mental health.
Being an advocate means getting informed so you can talk about mental health and mental illness accurately and inclusively. It also means checking in on your friends and family, supporting them and reaching out when you sense they might be struggling, and giving them a safe space to talk when they're ready to open up. It means advocating for someone close to you, when they need your help finding and connecting to necessary resources, treatment and support. And it means advocating for yourself, when you're the one who needs help, and having the courage to ask for the help that you need and deserve. And when you feel ready, it means being a role model by showing others that you're not ashamed to talk about your own mental health.
Being an advocate and leader also means taking action and making noise in other ways beyond the stage. It means drawing attention to mental health in a way that is engaging, relateable and accessible to as many people as possible. Jack Chapters are doing an amazing job of creating conversations in their school communities and beyond, and there are endless ways to do this with a little passion, creativity and support from like-minded people. Jack Summit is an annual gathering of young advocates from across Canada who want to take this discussion further. There are initiatives, campaigns, activities and events taking place all over the country - and across the world. These are exciting times!
But we can all be advocates every day in our communities, in endless ways, whether it's a conversation with one person or a conversation with thousands. What will you say today to give a voice to mental health?