Everyone expects you to be okay because you're a mental health advocate.
You tell your story over and over again in an attempt to eradicate the stigma. You create a space for people to feel that they can share their story, too. You want others to know that they will be okay, because they will be. But people don’t realize that you may be suffering underneath it all. There is one thing about advocacy that is rarely touched upon, and that is advocacy burnout.
People know that I live with mental illnesses. That’s what pushes me to keep talking – to share my experiences – I am just one of many that need to be validated. My story is valid. My feelings matter. We always seem to focus on the ‘AHA’ moment of when things seem to get so low, but then they take a sudden turn and go back up again. And I promise, that does happen. It has happened. And it will probably happen again.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t go back down. I am not writing this to discourage anyone. Recovery is an amazing thing and it really does work. I have hit a point so low in my life that I did not think I was ever going to come out of it. To a point where my safety was put in danger. I could have left this world then and not have made it here today. But things got better. Substantially better.
Most days are good. I’ve reached a point after years of various treatments and practices where 95% of my days are filled with happiness, joy and hope. I have off days sometimes, just like everybody else. I am still human. My bad days now are still so much better than what my ‘good’ days used to be before I got help.
But relapse still happens. Sometimes, that high hits a bump in the road and you are suddenly thrown back down into that hole where you once thought you couldn’t get out of. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it still happens.
And when it does, it’s bad. Because when you are out of that for so long, you almost forget just how indescribable those feelings can be. The emptiness. The numbness. It’s one thing to talk about it, but unless you have felt those feelings, you can never fully understand the true meaning of “feeling sad is better than feeling nothing at all”.
Even though a large part of your life is devoted to raising awareness, practicing self-care, reaching out to others and being a light for everyone else in the dark, sometimes you forget to take your own advice. Practice what you preach, I guess.
It is much easier to advocate for others when you are in a healthy state of mind. To reach out your hand and walk on that journey with that person to bring them to their light, too. People look up to you, because if you can come out of it, they can too.
I feel like I’ve let them down. I feel like everything I’ve ever done is a lie because I cannot ever reach a secure state of healthiness. I feel as though I am hypocritical because some days I can barely get out of bed, let alone stepping foot into the doctor’s office to book an appointment for something that is supposed to be managed by now.
But guess what? Life doesn’t work like that.
Nobody will ever be 100% healthy or 100% sick all the time. Everyone gets a cold here and there, sometimes induced by seasons, situations (such as getting caught in the rain), or just because (like in the middle of the Summer when you can’t possibly understand how you could have a cold). Mental illness and mental health issues are very much the same. Situations like starting back at university or losing a loved one, or different seasons such as when the weather gets cooler and the nights get darker. But sometimes there is no reason- sometimes you just get worn out.
Your own expectations can’t be met and you feel overwhelmed. It becomes too much. You start to crash. But you don’t show it because then what? What would you’re the people who follow you say? Were you lying this whole time? How could you speak about recovery and how things get better if you aren’t there yourself?
I speak up because this is life. Everyone will get caught in a slump. It’s inevitable. But if you know what to do when you’re feeling healthy, then it is a hell of a lot easier to explain to your bruised brain when it’s feeling low: how to deal with it or where to go for help if you can’t handle it on your own.
Advocacy can be an amazing self-help mechanism in dealing with personal struggles. Personally, I find it is the most effective form of self-care that I do. Being honest about my feelings and my journey is a step to health. Opening to others about myself and opening doors for other people to share their thoughts and feelings is the most rewarding job in the world. It creates a light in a dark room that can fill with hope and optimism. It reminds others that they are not alone.
But it can also be extremely draining and exhausting. It can suck the life out of you and make you question all of the work you’ve ever put into it. Because you are so passionate, you try to put your all into it and this can rob you of your peace and ruin you of your freedom.
But it doesn’t have to.
Here are some tips you can do to be an effective advocate.
Your mental health is important. I’ve had to learn the hard way that I can’t just help others if I don’t help myself. I was blind to the fact that I was just digging myself a deep hole each time I ignored my body’s warning signs, such as fatigue. Your health is always number one.
2. It’s okay to say no.
Don’t take on too much. If you’re like me, you want to do anything and everything that has any relation to mental health. It’s great that you want to be so involved, but you can’t do everything – even if you want to. It’s better to put your all into a few great things than a little bit into a bunch of things. So what if you don’t take on that extra initiative? It may be a desire but if it’s only going to add stress and drain all the energy you have left, it’s not a good idea. Listen to your body’s needs and your brain’s plead for tip number 1.
3. Reach out.
Support groups are amazing. They can be strange or uncomfortable at first but they are there for a reason. Let them support you. Get to know other advocates and talk about what you’re feeling. Odds are that they are feeling or have felt the same way you are right now.
4. Collaboration is key.
Planning and facilitating initiatives on your own is difficult. Work with existing organizations – they usually provide amazing insight and perspectives and can create an even more rewarding project. Split up the tasks so that everyone has a role and you are not taking on too much. Work together to create something beautiful.
5. Love yourself.
You need to credit yourself for the work you do. It may feel weird (I still have a difficult time doing this) but if your heart is passionate about this, you need to credit yourself. When I was a teenager with little to no information about what I was going through, I would have done anything just to know that someone understood what I was going through. I still feel that way from time to time – but knowing you are not alone is so important. Be your own best friend. If you can say all those amazing things to somebody else in their struggle, look in the mirror and repeat them back to yourself. You are a warrior. God damn, you are a warrior.
6. Support Each Other.
I get it – support is what you do. But don’t sell other advocates short because they couldn’t meet a deadline on time. Yes, those things are important – but life happens. Your health comes first. You can’t substitute a due date for good health. Be mindful of these tips when working with others and look out for overwork in them, too. You may just need to be the one to tell them that it’s time to take a step back and work on tip 1 and 2. And hey, they may just do the same thing for you.
People need to hear your voice. The impact you have on this world is incredible, and so I encourage you to keep talking. If just one person hears your voice and starts to take care of their mental health, then what you’re doing is enough. And it is completely okay if that one person is yourself.
Written by StFX Campus Rep Julissa Stewart