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Take care: Being an ally and an advocate

[This is article six in a recurring column guiding students through the navigation of mental health on college campuses. According to CollegeStats, 50 percent of students rate their mental health as below average or poor, and up to 80 percent of college students share that they feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities. This column aims to assist students in their pursuit of emotional growth.]

Image: “Mental Health Brain Training Mind” by Tumisu is licensed by Pixabay.

Studies show that mental illness affects one in every four Americans at some point during their lifetime. With these high statistics, it’s most likely true that either you or someone you know lives with a mental illness. Becoming an ally or an advocate for individuals with mental illness is essential in combating stigma, stereotypes and misunderstanding.

The roles of both advocates and allies differ, but both are important roles to play. As a broad definition, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Chester County advocate Debbie Thomas defines being an advocate as: “a person who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.”

Through her work with NAMI, Thomas offers classes to families of individuals with mental illness. “For me, advocacy is saying to the families that sit around the table twice a year, “You need to get education for yourself, because you can’t help the person that you’re here for if you’re not understanding how to navigate the system,” says Thomas.

Since mental health is such an encompassing field, opportunities for advocacy are plentiful. College students interested in becoming mental health and mental illness advocates can make a difference in a variety of ways. “I think if you find something in this large mental health arena… that you feel passionate about, you have to have that passion, the next thing is to become a member… [NAMI] is revamping our college program now to be helpful,” says Thomas.

Education is one of the most important aspects in becoming a mental health ally or advocate. Having a working vocabulary and understanding of mental illness and its symptoms is one of the most beneficial tools because it allows for both a general and empathetic understanding.

Advocacy is essential in assisting individuals and families of individuals with mental illness to navigate through treatment and care, both privately and within government policy. Thomas shares that aspiring advocates may be intimidated because they feel as if their knowledge is not great enough to help. Gaining that education along the way is something that Thomas did herself and encourages other individuals to do as well.

While advocating may not be something everyone is interested in, being an ally is something that is also extremely important. While an advocate may publicly support a cause or policy, an ally is someone who sides with and supports an individual or group.

According to Psych Central, there are numerous ways an ally can do to support an individual with mental illness. An ally can make sure they avoid labeling an individual as their mental illness, build trust, be a “safe” person to talk with, and  remembering to be inclusive. Often, individuals with mental illness cancel plans because of their symptoms. Psych Central says, “Continuing to invite individuals who regularly cancel or can be unreliable in their attendance is a wonderful act of acceptance of their limitation and symptoms.”

There are many opportunities for being an advocate and ally for individuals with mental illness, and the reward of doing so is substantial. “It comes back. I had a family in our family-to-family class, and when [the father] finally understood how his son was processing information, he was like ‘I got it!’ I was like ‘You got it?’ and he goes ‘Yeah!’ and he called me maybe a year ago and said, ‘I just want to tell you that you made a difference in our life and you made a difference in the future. Just to let you know, my son is doing much better and I can’t thank you enough.’ That’s why I do it,” said Thomas.

Julianna Eckman is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in journalism and psychology. JE848886@wcupa.edu

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