How to be an Advocate for Others
This segment will take approximately 10 minutes to complete. Begin by watching Sean's video to the right and use the text below as reference. You're well on your way to becoming a NoStigmas Advocate- Great job!
1. Set boundaries and keep up your self-care.
It can be difficult to navigate your own wellness and also provide peer support to someone else. If you aren’t healthy or practicing self-care yourself, you may not be able to help someone at this time. Becoming a successful advocate for others is only possible once you’re able to advocate for your own health and wellbeing. Before you decide to become engaged with someone else’s mental health, it’s important to ask yourself if you are in a place where you will be able to offer support, or if you need to set a boundary. And if all you can offer is friendship, you’re still helping so much!
Setting boundaries is a great tool to help you manage the support you can give (e.g. when you can connect, what’s out of your comfort zone, etc.). If you’re coming from a place of compassion, setting a boundary with the support seeker is an act of support; it means you want to make sure you can be as helpful as possible, even if that means connecting them to other support options.
Even when you’re able to act as an advocate for others, or simply connect with them, it’s important to manage expectations and draw boundaries that protect your own needs.
Let the support seeker know that you aren’t able to provide them with counseling, social services or crisis intervention. Someone you’re talking with is probably going through a difficult time, so ask, “How can I help?” and make sure you listen to what they need from you. That person’s needs are valid, but it’s up to you to decide if you are able and willing to offer them help.
What does that look like? Well, if you want to help but aren’t able to commit to things like lengthy phone conversations, 24/7 availability for checking-in, then let them know what you are able to do. For example, you can suggest wrapping up phone calls after an hour, set specific times to check in briefly or simply say you are unavailable after 9pm. Make sure that you establish a clear crisis protocol for when you are unavailable.
2. Be a Confidante.
Acting as an advocate for others means people may confide in you. Your goal is to create an environment where people feel safe to share and connect. In doing that, someone may share information that’s difficult to understand or shocking to hear. Focus on the person and not their actions. Offer them support in a positive and non-judgmental way.
Trust is a fragile thing, so it’s important to honor that confidentiality except in the case of a crisis situation. At the same time, be clear about the circumstances where you might have to reach out to a 3rd party for help. We’ll go over that more in the next section.
3. Know the Crisis Warning Signs.
Part of being an advocate for others means being aware of signs that someone is in crisis and experiencing suicidal thoughts. While everyone may act differently in these situations, the National Institute for Mental Health does offer the following common warning signs of suicide:
Threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself
Looking for ways to kill oneself by seeking access to firearms, available pills or other means
Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person
Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge
Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities seemingly without thinking
Feeling trapped like there’s no way out
Increasing alcohol or drug use
Withdrawing from friends, family, and society
Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep or sleeping all the time
Experiencing dramatic mood changes
Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline notes these symptoms are most significant when the behavior is new or increasing, especially if it seems related to a recent loss or other painful event. If you see someone suddenly exhibiting some of these signs, it may be time to seek additional help.
If you need support or see someone who does, it’s okay to speak up. If you do spot the warning signs listed above, or otherwise know that someone needs help beyond your support, it is important that you take steps to point them in the direction of the help they need.
If you realize someone is in crisis, remember to stay calm when you talk to them, while still taking them seriously and not underacting – if you’re worried, it’s okay to show that you’re worried. It’s also important to not promise confidentiality, as you may need to contact a professional on their behalf if they aren’t willing to. If the person is in immediate bodily danger, or is putting you or someone near them in immediate danger, don’t be afraid to call 911 right away.
If they are not in immediate danger, it’s best to try to help them connect with a crisis hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or another competent professional. If they need convincing, share concrete reasons why you believe they are in crisis and need to reach out for more help. Acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that there is help out there. Don’t be argumentative or judgmental; just listen, be honest, and don’t relieve the person of responsibility for their actions. Try to stay in contact with them until you’re sure they’ve connected with a professional.
4. Be sensitive in your language.
Be deliberate in the choices of language you use when talking with someone who needs support. As always, avoid stigmatizing words and phrases like “crazy” or “mentally ill,” even if the other person uses them first. Be careful not to monopolize the conversation, but you don’t have to be a silent sounding board, either! Share your thoughts and opinions about what the other person is saying, without giving advice or telling them what to do. Instead, try to respond emotionally, with understanding and compassion. If something they’ve said resonates with your own experience, share it if you feel comfortable doing so. Sometimes sharing a piece of your own journey is the best way to show you understand someone else’s.
For example, even if someone says they’re “acting crazy” you don’t have to adopt that language. Sometimes we use stigmatizing phrases to cover our real feelings. They could be feeling out of control, imbalanced, hopeless, agitated, reckless etc. By gently guiding them to address how they’re feeling, it can help give them back their power to make clear and positive decisions.
5. Sometimes advocacy is just being a good friend.
If you’re acting as a support for someone who isn’t in crisis, the most important thing to do is be a caring friend! Remember to ask “how are you?” and genuinely listen to the answer. Don’t act uncomfortable if someone confides in you that they are going through a difficult time; just listen and say “how can I help?” or offer to help them with something specific like finding a therapist. Be patient if they are down during a rough patch. Be happy with them when the rough patch is over. Be one of the people in their life who sees them as a whole person beyond their symptoms or their diagnosis. Make your friendship a safe and empathetic place.