Living with mental health problems comes with many challenges. It’s often overwhelming and emotionally draining – and when you’re struggling the most, making decisions, accessing support, and articulating thoughts and feelings can feel near impossible. This is where an advocate can come in to lend a hand.
One common emotion that can arise for someone with mental illness is frustration, particularly when they feel they aren’t being listened to. As someone with bipolar disorder, I know from my own experience that it can be hard to have my opinion heard, and to be taken seriously. This is why having a family member or close friend act as an advocate for you can be a big help.
An advocate supports a loved one, helps them express their views, and can stand up for their rights. Psychotherapist Baljit Kamal says: “Being an advocate for your loved one who is going through mental illnesses may mean that you are easing their nervousness, and bringing clarity for them. It may include assisting them to receive the medical attention and care they deserve, and ensuring that their voice is heard, especially if they have been afraid to speak up for themselves.” It really is an often vital role to play in helping someone overcome the challenges that can come with the mental health system.
The key thing to distinguish here though, is that being an advocate does not mean pressuring someone into a decision. You’re there to help your loved one to make informed decisions, and support them in whatever they decide is right for them. Listening to someone’s concerns, opinions, and fears is hugely impactful.
“The most helpful thing a loved one can do when they are advocating for someone with a mental illness, is to be fully present and listen, without judgement,” Baljit Kamal explains. “Active listening is when you have your full focus on what someone is saying, while making a conscious effort to hear not only the words being expressed, but also the complete message being communicated through non-verbal aspects of communication, too. This may include putting yourself in their shoes, which can be calming, reassuring, and even healing, during moments of crisis for your loved one.”
The following five steps can help improve your listening skills, and ensure you’re giving them the best support possible:
Make eye contact, but not constantly. Try not to fold your arms, cross your legs, look away or at your phone – basically anything that signals to them that you’re not paying them your full attention.
Try not to interrupt or give them unsolicited advice, as this could shut them down and abruptly end the chat. Instead, reflect back what they’ve told you by paraphrasing and putting it in your own words to ensure you’ve understood, and show them that you’re listening.
Try not to daydream, or listen to your inner voice, while they’re speaking. This can also help you to watch out for what isn’t said, as much as what is. You’ll be more able to pick up on their tone of voice, facial expressions, and whether their body language is hinting at a hidden meaning behind their words.
When they’ve finished speaking, take a moment before answering. Reflect on what they’ve said now, rather than preparing an answer while they were talking. If you need any clarification, try to ask open ended questions that encourage them to explain things in more detail – avoid closed ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, as this can shut down the conversation.
“Being an advocate for your loved one may include assisting them to receive the medical attention and care they deserve, and ensuring that their voice is heard”
Try not to change the direction of the conversation abruptly. What they’re telling you is obviously important to them, so listen patiently, even if you feel other issues are more pressing to discuss. Allow them to take their time, be open to what they’re saying, and do your best not to judge.
Beyond being there when they need to talk, you can step up to give more practical support, too:
People with mental health conditions are often vulnerable, may have low self-esteem, and can have difficulty being decisive. This makes it more likely that they can be a victim of discrimination. It also means they are less likely to challenge discrimination, or feel capable of standing up for their rights. As an advocate, you can help with this – whether it’s looking at their rights at work, to housing, being a patient in hospital, or discrimination in everyday life. Charities such as Mind have extensive information about mental health and rights, with links to other organisations that can offer support. Research their rights together, and discuss if they want to pursue anything.
“The most helpful thing a loved one can do is to be fully present and listen, without judgement”
Look into whether there is any additional support they may be entitled to. This includes benefits such as Universal Credit, Employment and Support Allowance, and Personal Independence Payment. As an advocate, you can make phone calls on their behalf, attend appointments such as a Work Capability Assessment (WCA), and help them to appeal a benefit claim that has been turned down.
As an advocate, you can attend appointments and help your loved one to explain what’s wrong, especially if they’re in distress or are struggling to articulate how they feel. And there are several key things you can do to help here:
Talk about the appointment beforehand. Discuss what they want to get across, and what needs to be covered. Consider what could potentially be asked of them, and how they would want to respond.
Plan your journey to the appointment, and research the setting together, to avoid additional anxiety on the day.
Be careful not to talk for, or over, the person you are advocating for, and don’t assume you know what the best decision is for them, unless they have discussed it with you beforehand. Give them space to express themselves when they feel capable, and support them in asking their own questions.
Take some notes with you to ensure all the points you discussed together are covered during the appointment.
You can also jot down the important points from the conversation while you’re there. This is important so that you can both look back over the meeting to see what was discussed, agreed on, and any actions you’ll need to take.
If the person you’re advocating for is having a difficult time concentrating, or taking in new information, you can be there to help explain their options.
Make sure to keep them safe. This might include taking regular breaks, and giving them emotional support to answer difficult or potentially upsetting questions. If you believe answering might cause them distress, you can ask if they would like you to respond on their behalf.
Being an advocate for someone is a big responsibility, and it can feel daunting. But know that being there for them in their time of need, whether it’s simply by allowing them to voice their feelings, or taking a few tasks off their plate, can really make the world of difference.
Baljit Kamal is a psychotherapist in private practice, and the founder of
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