Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Glimmer of Hope: The Future of Mental Health Advocacy

“I want to do what you do.”

That was the beginning of the conversation I had this past week with a young woman I know. She is just completing her first year in college and is exploring future career opportunities. I was quite excited to have this opportunity to provide suggestions on how she might become a mental health advocate. I also told her that she doesn’t have to wait. I recommended that she find out if her college has an Active Minds chapter. Active Minds is a college-based mental health organization that advocates on behalf of students who live with mental health concerns. I told her that if her school didn’t have a chapter then she could even pursue starting one herself.

She said that she is considering a change of major to Social Work. I affirmed that this could be a good move considering that having a combination of both professional and lived experience is a great combination and can be a very powerful means of delivering a strong message around mental health.

I also emphasized the importance of self-care. This can be an overlooked piece of what it means to be an advocate. It is vital that one ensure that s/he is taking care of their own mental and emotional wellbeing in order to do the work that needs to be done, especially if one is in it for the long haul.

Another thing that brightened my outlook for the future of the advocacy work so many of us are engaged in was the opportunity I had to present a webinar on the topic oftransition-age youth resources for the New York State Transition SupportPartners hosted by the organization Parent Network of Western New York. This organization works with parents and educators around supporting youth with mental and emotional challenges. I was emboldened by the fact that there is such an organization that can be a part of the backbone of the future of mental health advocacy. By educating these supporters, our youth will be better able to achieve their goals and find their own voice.

One of the resources I referenced in the webinar was Youth Power, a New York State peer-based organization for young people who are actively seeking change. This group is doing amazing work and is a model for transition-age peer groups across the U.S. and the world.

The final event I participated in was the Youth Mental Health Awareness Dinner sponsored by the Families'Child Advocacy Network, the Family Help Center: YEL & Youth Movement Groups, and the Mental Health Association of Erie County’s Child & Family SupportProgram. The dinner was peer driven and began with a fun mental health quiz powered by Kahoot, a new educational app. This activity allowed many of the 300 attendees to compete for prizes and was incredibly engaging. I was amazed at how quiet the group got during the game. I followed by delivering a brief presentation on the Erie County Anti-Stigma Coalition, a group of 15 community partners that are working together to create a multi-platform program that will raise awareness about mental health in our area.

The evening also included a well-produced video on youth advocacy by two peers from the Youth Empowerment Leadership (YEL) group, a youth “speak out” that allowed several of the youth in attendance to share some of the work they had done earlier in the day including posters that were created as well as personal stories. This was very impactful in that speaking in front of 300 people can be very challenging and I was very impressed that these young people were courageous enough to do so, most for the very first time.

The evening concluded with a very passionate and creative interpretive dance by one of the members from YEL. This young man has some definite skills. He was lip synching a Michael Jackson song and it appeared that he was feeling every bit of the emotion that the tune conveyed.

There is also a cadre of youth peers who work at the Mental Health Association who serve as peer mentors. These young people work in a variety of capacities: in local psychiatric emergency rooms as well as at local organizations that serve youth living with mental health challenges. These youth are the future leaders of the burgeoning peer movement and are a force to be reckoned with.

As someone who is passionate about the topic of mental health awareness and wellbeing, as well as that of public policy, I can see that while there is much work to be done, the future is brighter due to the efforts of the many youth peers who are not afraid to let their voices be heard. With the advent of the internet, and especially social media, we are seeing a quantum leap of activity around peer advocacy. And our youth are a big part of this movement. And this is what excites me so much about the future to come.
photo credit Youth Power NY

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