Everyone seeking information, support and treatment deserves to feel safe, have the right to be listened to, be treated with respect and fairly, and live free from abuse, judgement and discrimination.
Sometimes when you are experiencing a mental health condition or supporting someone with a mental health condition, you can be treated differently, making it hard for you to trust others, get help or even feel heard and seen. This mistreatment coupled with the mental health system being a complex world to navigate, can make life feel overwhelming when you need help.
By seeking the support of an advocate, you will have someone who can speak on your behalf and support you so that you feel heard and seen by the people who should be supporting you.
What is advocacy?
Advocacy means an individual, a group, or organisation standing by you to support, speak out or stand up for your rights when you’re being treated unfairly or abused. It’s about helping you make the case for the issues you’re facing, or the goals you’re trying to achieve, so that something can change or improve in a positive way to your benefit.
Advocates come in different forms. For example, they could be a mental health advocate working for an advocacy organisation, or could be a friend, family member, or carer.
What does an advocate do?
A mental health advocate usually knows how the mental health system works or has enough experience navigating it to guide you through it. While advocating for you, they can help show you the ‘ropes’ so you develop the skills and confidence to slowly start to advocate for yourself and others.
There’s no cost to you for accessing an advocate through an independent service such as an advocacy group, agency or organisation ‘Independent’ means they must not be from the same provider that’s already giving you support and treatment. This would be a conflict of interest and a huge no-no. If you ask the provider that’s supporting you, they can either refer you to an advocacy organisation or agency or point you in the right direction.
Whether the advocate is a friend, family member, carer or professional advocate, they can help you if you have concerns about your care, and how you’re being treated by the people who are supporting you. Since they’re representing for you, they should not do anything without your consent, and they should always follow your requests.
A common example is you’ve been admitted to hospital, feel you have been treated poorly during your stay and don’t have a support network. You decide to request an advocate (professional or friend) to help you:
- maintain control of your well-being, supports and treatment while in hospital
- navigate the hospital system and understand your rights as a patient
- be involved in decisions to do with your hospital stay
- reach the right hospital staff who can help resolve your concerns
- access external agencies who help with complex legal issues
- make informed decisions when you receive responses to your concerns
- be involved in all the decisions about your recovery plan and your life after being discharged
Advocacy can also be on behalf of a group of people (for example, people experiencing mental ill health or people who are unpaid carers), giving a collective voice to help influence change and ensure the group is included in the decision-making process for anything that affects you as a group or community, such as changes to the mental health system and changes in services for families of people living with mental health conditions.
How to tell if they’re the right advocate
Whether you’re approaching an advocate for yourself, someone else or your group, the advocate should:
- be 100% transparent with you about any conflict of interest
- meet with you online (such as on Zoom) or offline, not only communicate in writing
- ask about your views, concerns, and experience, and truly listen to you
- help you research your options and understand your rights
- help you find out why and how something happened
- give you information to help you make informed decisions without rushing you or putting pressure on you
- puts you in touch with additional people who are qualified to assist
- refer another advocate if they don’t feel qualified to help you
- help you prepare for your meetings and appointments with the people concerned
- accompany you and support you at meetings and appointments
- treat you kindly, fairly and without judgement throughout the process
And a good advocate never offers their personal opinion, make decisions for you, solve problems for you, make judgement about you, nor should they take actions or approve anything on your behalf without your consent. Nothing without your consent.
Plus, no one should advocate on your behalf without your consent.
Need help finding an advocacy organisation?
You can find an advocacy service or peak body in your state in our service directory via the Get Help page.
How to become a mental health advocate
Sometimes we think being a mental health advocate means attending rallies, protests or needing a degree in mental health or experience working in the sector.
In reality, a mental health advocate simply needs to have a strong passion to be support other people, help make a difference and help remove the stigma associated with mental illness.
You’re probably already an advocate without knowing it. Maybe you spoke up for yourself or someone else, or you volunteered to review a mental health policy that affect people with mental health conditions. Or even helped raise funds for a cause associated with mental health. Yes? Then you’re a mental health advocate.
But if you haven’t, or are interested in doing more, start here:
- Learn more about mental health and mental health conditions, the stigma, and the barriers that are stopping people from gaining access to support and services.
- Help others learn by sharing information with them about mental health conditions.
- Help your employer learn about mental health and how to support employees.
- Support someone you know who may be struggling to be heard or to get access to support and services. You could help them fill their forms, drive them to appointments, help them reconnect with their community, or simply be there when they need a friend to listen to their stories. By helping, you could also be saving a life.
- Talk to your local politicians and mental health organisations about your ideas for introducing or improving mental health services and resources.
- Volunteer at an event or hotline for mental health.
- Donate money to organisations that are working hard to help your friends, relatives and co-workers.
- Join an advocacy agency or organisation so you can work with people who need someone as passionate as you in their corners.
These are only some of the ways to step up and become a mental health advocate.
Every little bit you do can make a huge difference.