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7 Mental Health Advocates Get Real About the Pressure to Seem 'OK'

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When I heard about Amy Bleuel’s passing on The Mighty, I found myself frozen staring at my semicolon tattoo. I will never know exactly what was on Amy’s mind at that time, but I was stuck thinking about how we make it hard for our advocates to succeed.

We are the people changing the mental health system, holding hope for others who hear our stories and want help, we are fighting against people who don’t want to talk to us because they think we are fragile and broken — no matter how badass and accomplished we are. We are treated like clockwork oranges — always giving to others. We give support, love, advice, ideas, space for people to complain when we don’t speak for them — and sometimes, all without getting proper self-care space, payment or respect for our hard work.

And — before anyone decides to complain about this in the comments — we understand how lucky we are to have a platform and voice to make a change, it’s why we always come back. But if we don’t have the space to rest, the support we need or the respect — it makes advocacy unsustainable and potentially harmful. Below I have asked for other mental health advocates (and amazing Mighty contributors) to share their stories of how being an advocate makes self-care hard. I hope from this, other mental health advocates (big or small) can understand they aren’t alone in how they are feeling. I hope the community that relies on us for support can understand why we can’t always be there. And I hope the world understands we are not unbreakable or perfect, we are just normal people who care a whole lot.

1. “There was a quote in Sarah’s article that really grabbed me about how those called as suicide prevention advocates are often those who have survived an attempt or who are survivors of suicide loss. It doesn’t mean they know the territory before jumping into the canoe. (Paraphrasing here, so I don’t have it exactly right probably.) This is so true. We’re navigating the same waters, but don’t necessarily have a lighthouse in sight, a life jacket or even know how to swim in uncharted waters… we just know we’re called to help others. Sometimes in helping others, our own self-care takes a backseat, sometimes because it’s easier to focus other’s problems and sometimes because we get caught up in what we do, and other times because we just don’t see that we have that safety net we are to some. It’s easy to not see the rocks or rapids ahead until you hit them. People tend to think we have the answers and have conquered, but we’re really still in the battle with them.” — Selena Marie Wilson

2. “I always want to educate people about my mental illnesses and show people that someone with my disorders is still able to succeed in life. I am eager to talk to people about the difficulties I have overcome and how healthy I am now. But life isn’t simple like that. My journey to mental health has been going in the right direction overall, but there have been a lot of bumps on the way. I want to tell people, I was so sick when I was diagnosed 14 years ago, but now I’m great. But in reality today I might have had a panic attack, today I might have had terrible anxiety, today I might have been in deep depression, today I might have been manic, today I might have heard voices or dissociated. I had two mental breakdowns just last year. I want to be a poster child for mental illness, so sometimes I smile and say I’m OK when I’m not. It’s a struggle. I love when people say I am an inspiration. I love when people say that they are amazed at how well I am doing in life, despite my illness. But then it’s easy to not tell the whole story. I have days that are terrible. I want to be an inspiration, not a burden, so sometimes I hold my tongue instead of getting help.”  — Anna Lente

3. “I started writing to get my story out there, to break through that wall that told me I wasn’t lovable. I have such a difficult time verbalizing, writing became a way for me to get clear, to regain my focus. The unseen force at work is that I feel the need to be OK, that I feel admitting publicly that I am not OK ruins all the work I have put put there. It is a struggle between being who I am in the moment and that person I want to be. Sometimes I am not OK, sometimes I fall down and I need help getting back up; becoming an advocate has created the illusion for me that it is not OK to ask for help. But it comes down to this: that shadow part of me deserves just as much love as the rest of me. But I am not sure how the shadow will be received by my readers and friends that may not understand it is not a straight path.” — Lenore Searle

4. “We want people to be inspired by our tales, as we have been inspired by others who came before to keep us motivated in this battle. Still, it is a hard commitment you do when you become a mental health advocate, as you are still struggling, but the priority now becomes to inspire others. Amy is a clear example. We make a significant change, save lives, make people see it’s worth living life and leave the mental health community much stronger than the one we started with. That means keep fighting with your demons, but always remembering you are doing it not only to keep yourself alive, but so others will. Our job demands to know how to handle the thin line between telling our stories bluntly and as they are, to show that mental health struggle is in fact real, but always keeping in mind that you do it in order to create awareness, strength and solidarity, not to make others sink with you at your hardest moments.” — Mariana Solarte Caicedo

5. “One of the most detrimental misconceptions surrounding mental health advocacy is the notion that advocates ‘have it all together.’ Although we, as mental health advocates, write and speak on some of the most vulnerable aspects of our lives, candidly addressing our own struggles in the hope of spreading awareness and helping others feel less alone, we are perceived as virtually infallible. We are faced with the pressure to remain composed at all times, to be ‘self-care superstars’ and to advocate in a socially conscious way, but the desire to continue fighting, the expectation that we must always smile and the notion that we must never have a difficult day can cause our mental health to plummet. This polarizing dichotomy between the perception and reality of mental health advocacy affects me daily, on a deeply personal level. Despite my candor regarding my experience with mental illness, others in the mental health community believe I am winning the battle against my own mind, but they cannot see the days I struggle with self-care and fight to stay afloat; my mind frozen by anxiety and numbed by depression. — Kelly Douglas

6. “I began writing about my mental illness because I didn’t want people to feel as alone as I felt when I was diagnosed. I try and be as honest as possible in the life I am experiencing but at times it gets hard. The world almost expects me to be fine because I advocate for mental health awareness. There is pressure to not have a bad day, not not break down, to show no signs of weakness. It’s silly because it goes against everything I advocate for. I advocate for openness and free expression of how one feels. And to find that I don’t do it because I get scared of the very stigma I advocate against is hypocritical. I want to say I am always winning because I don’t want others to give up. I always smile because I feel the need to be strong for others. But I forget that at times I need to let go of all that control so that others can be strong for me.” — Ros Limbo

7. “It’s so easy to fall into the trap of presenting as 100 percent better. It’s easy on social and in traditional media, and in person. I wanted that fairy tale recovery story — but instead of Prince Charming Recusing me, it was some magical mental health professional that made it go away forever. But — as we all know — fairy tales are not real. My real story, of being better for a while, getting worse, being better getting worse again, is the most accurate — but also the most inspirational and stigma challenging. I realized, after trying to be perfectly well, that I didn’t need to be perfectly recovered to make change. That I can write awesome blogs, create amazing programs and tell compelling stories even if I am not well — as long as I love and take care of myself. In doing this, I also took pressure off myself to be the one true mental health advocate. All I can do is fight for the change I think is good, highlight the voices I see passed over and build stuff I think is really cool. When people get upset because it’s not their change — all I can do is show them tools to make their change. I can’t do everything for everyone. Lastly, I have also given myself permission to say fuck the haters. I have been in so many meetings where I had to present well to appease some doctor, politician or community leader who thought people living with mental illness were too fragile to participate in change that affect them. Now — when someone suggests that I need to be x amount of well for x amount of time to participate — I kindly remind them that I kick just as much ass as they do even if I am unwell and that asking people to pretend to be well to talk to them is dangerous.” — Alicia Raimundo

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Originally published: April 7, 2017
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