When I Spoke Up as a Mental Health Advocate and Got the Most Amazing Response
Recently I was asked to go a community mental health training since I had signed up to volunteer with a mental health organization. During the training, things kept being said by the participants or leaders that I felt perpetuated stigma or a stereotype about mental illness. I became extremely anxious and angry. I kept raising my hand to respond to things or give a different opinion. Activities triggered me as well. Several times I even shared in front of these strangers about my personal experience with mental illness, since I knew it would be helpful. I felt pretty exposed after sharing but reminded myself it was a safe place to do so.
Leaving the training, I felt overwhelming emotions and anxiety. I decided I needed to write to my contact at the volunteer organization about how I felt. I wrote her a long angry email correcting things said at the training — things I felt perpetuated a stigma or stereotype — and shared my general emotions about the day.
After I clicked “send,” I panicked about how she was going to respond. I’m new as a volunteer and I want her to think well of me. Writing an angry email probably wouldn’t help! At the same time, I keep caring more about being an advocate and speaking out against stigma and stereotypes regarding mental illness. People don’t always like advocates, but it’s important to keep speaking out. So, I think I did the right thing?
Two days later, I was incredibly relieved to see an email from her in my inbox. Finally, I could stop stressing about what she thought of my email. I read,
Thank you for the time you have spent on this email… it is a treasure — for offering your knowledge, not only for correcting symptoms to describe illnesses, but also for the conviction and passion you feel for how stigmas are perpetuated.
If it’s OK with you, I will pass on your email to the [leaders of the training] for discussion of the material and how it is presented.
I acknowledge that Saturday was a stressful, triggering day, not only for you, but also for others that spoke to me. I, too, felt very sad. The exercise that you participated in was highly emotional for most. I was worried about you. It was courageous of you to give a follow-up of your experience doing the exercise, and I felt eased.
I look forward to working with you. You will bring all of who you are and that … will be a blessing to others.
I was amazed by her response. I felt affirmed and validated. I kept repeating the last line to myself: “You will bring all of who you are and that will be a blessing to others.” At the training and in my email to her, I was many things — a prospective volunteer, a person with mental illnesses, a mental health advocate and a counseling student. Often I feel like I am “too much,” but in that moment I felt like I was OK.
After receiving that email, I was strengthened in my resolve to be an advocate, to break stereotypes and stigma. Not everyone will like what I say and how I say it, but responses like hers encourage me to keep speaking up.
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Thinkstock photo via undrey