What Is a Mental Health Advocate?

Woman working as a mental health advocate

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What Is a Mental Health Advocate?

A mental health advocate is a person who provides support to those with mental illness. This can come in many forms, including providing emotional support and advice on dealing with their diagnosis.

Mental health advocates are not only the voice of those living with mental illness but also their hands. They listen, speak up for them, stand up for them, and fight alongside them.

History of Mental Health Advocacy

While the term mental health advocate only started to become popularized in the last 20 years, we can trace its history back to Dorothea Dix, a 19th-century activist who challenged norms in the field of medicine and advocated for the mentally ill.

Later in 1909, former mental patient Clifford Beers founded the National Committee for Mental Hygiene (now known as the National Mental Health Association).

Qualities of a Mental Health Advocate

What makes someone a good mental health advocate? Below are some of the qualities that many mental health advocates share.

Mental health advocates should be the following:

  • Inclusive and respectful of other's views, beliefs, lifestyles, and identities
  • Patient while communicating with others regarding their own experiences or the issues they are passionate about
  • Honest in every aspect especially when it comes to sharing information

Types of Mental Health Advocates

What are the types of mental health advocates? Mentorship and guidance for those seeking treatment or who have had a mental health diagnosis is an important role that many advocates provide. However, there are many types of mental health advocates and the following list highlights some examples.

  • A family member who is advocating for their loved one with a mental illness or addiction.
  • An individual who provides support to those who have experienced trauma such as sexual assault, violence, and natural disasters.
  • Someone working in an office environment providing advice on how to access mental health services.
  • Advocates may also work outside of mental health settings, such as lawyers or politicians who help pass legislation that makes it easier for those with a mental illness or disability to live more independently.

How to Become a Mental Health Advocate

There is no specific credential to obtain as an entry point into becoming an advocate for those living with mental illness or addiction.

If you have a strong desire to help people with mental illness, there are several ways that you can become an advocate for this community. Below are different ways in which you can become a mental health advocate.

  • Work with private or non-profit organizations that support those living with addiction, trauma, and other mental illnesses. For example, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) supports people who live with mental illness.
  • Find a volunteer opportunity. Volunteers help with various mental health-related issues, including homelessness, suicide prevention, sexual assault, and legal advocacy.
  • Work with a local organization or clinic. Many of these organizations allow for volunteers and offer night programs, office assistance, and public outreach opportunities.
  • Take on this role at your school. Mental Illness prevention is an important topic to discuss in schools.
  • Go online. There are many websites dedicated to providing support for people who need help or advice regarding mental illness. The best part about being an online advocate is the anonymity it offers both in terms of personal safety and sharing personal experiences without the fear of judgment from others.
  • Become a self-advocate by sharing your own experiences to help others in the community understand what it is like to live with a mental illness. Sharing your story may not only help other people who are struggling, but it will also strengthen you as an individual because of the insight and perspective that comes from sharing your experience with others.

Mental Health Advocate vs. Mentor

Although mental health advocates and mentors both work to help people in difficult situations, there are some important differences.

Advocates, for example, focus on helping someone with a specific need or issue that is directly related to their mental health. They often guide navigating systems such as education, healthcare, law enforcement, etc.

On the other hand, mentors provide guidance and support over a more extended period, often helping someone build the skills they need to succeed. Mentors may focus on things like career development or social interactions.

You can find mentors at schools or universities that assign them to help students navigate college life or help students at risk of dropping out of school. They also work with children and youth in the foster care system and young adults transitioning out of incarceration.

Impact of Mental Health Advocates

What are the benefits of having people in the community with mental health experience help others? Below are some of the positive impacts that mental health advocates have on the community:

  • People learn from those who are experiencing a particular issue. In this case, people can learn about what it is like to live with a mental illness by listening to someone who has been there before and understands what they may be going through.
  • An advocate's perspective helps others understand if their symptoms are on the more serious end of the spectrum.
  • The support you get from a mental health advocate makes it possible to be part of healthy relationships with others in your family, school, or community.
  • Sharing experiences can help prevent stigma and make people understand what living with mental illness is like for those experiencing it firsthand.
  • Not only will advocates offer encouragement and hope, but they can also advise about what has worked for or is working for them.
  • Advocates become role models of someone who managed their illness successfully and are now using their experiences to help others going through the same things.
  • Advocates can highlight the availability of resources in their community, which is necessary for people to seek help when they need it.
  • People who would not otherwise seek out help for their mental health will feel more comfortable sharing what they are going through when in the presence of someone who has been there before.
  • Advocates can give a voice to people who would otherwise not have one.

Tips for Being a Mental Health Advocate

Being a mental health advocate is not without its own set of hurdles. Below are some tips to help you become a better advocate for yourself and others.

  • Be patient with yourself; it's not an easy job but the results will be worth your efforts.
  • Learn as much as you can about mental health, and share that information to help educate those around you.
  • Don't take on more than you have time for or you will burn out.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

Links & Resources

The following are some of the best places to find information on becoming a mental health advocate:               

Potential Pitfalls of Being a Mental Health Advocate

While there are multiple benefits to becoming an advocate, it is vital to be aware that some areas can cause stress or frustration.

If you feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities as an advocate, do not hesitate to seek help from other advocates and mentors who have more experience.

It is also important to remember that you may not be able to help everyone you meet. Some people may choose not to accept the help and support of a mental health advocate, even if they need it. For that reason, self-care is critical.

Mentors are valuable resources for advocates to seek out whenever possible. However, mentors will not always be available to help you in your journey as a mental health advocate. Prioritizing self-care can help to bridge this gap.

A Word From Verywell

In summary, a mental health advocate is someone who offers support to others experiencing mental illness. Advocates can be self-advocates, family members, or friends of loved ones with a mental health concern and/or care providers in the healthcare field. Becoming a mental health advocate is not just beneficial to those struggling with mental illness but also to the community as a whole.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Women's History Museum. Dorothea Dix.

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine. A Full-Time Activist. The National Committee Against Mental Illness, 1953-1963.

By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.