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How Do I Become a Mental Health Advocate?

A mental health advocate may work as a lobbyists to influence elected officials and legislation aimed at mental health issues.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 28 August 2014
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Mental health advocacy is divided into personal and professional fields, and it can require a lot of training or very little. In a way, any individual with mental health challenges or relative of that person may become a mental health advocate when working on a small scale to get appropriate treatment and equity. People in diverse fields like psychology, law, social work, or with a different educational focus may also pursue a career in this profession. There is a degree of overlap because private or nonprofit organizations often educate individuals with mental illness to be better advocates by teaching them about their rights.

A personal diagnosis of mental illness is a chance to become a mental health advocate. All mentally ill people and many of their family members get this opportunity. They enter a field in which they must learn how to ask for appropriate care, negotiate with insurance or government agencies, and continue to demand that they be treated with dignity. Recovering individuals may re-enter the workforce, and they may need to fight discrimination.

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Many people with mental illness aren’t very good self-advocates. It can be hard to demand rights with extreme impairments to cognition or mood. The marriage between professional and individual advocacy takes place at this juncture. Professional agencies may fight for changes in laws that demand fair treatment and access to care for which the individual is not capable of fighting. They can also train individuals about their legal rights, empowering them with knowledge that assists in successful self-advocacy.

These professionals come from many different training backgrounds. To become a mental health advocate at this level, people might be social workers, counselors, psychologists or psychiatrists. Lobbyists and lawyers may practice in this field, too. People with mental illness can have diverse educational experiences, but they may also be powerful professional advocates because of their direct knowledge.

The ways in which one might become a mental health advocate are thus exceptionally diverse. Many people do enter this field by first obtaining degrees. Advice for those who are interested in getting into this work depends on their specific educational focus.

For example, if a person majors in a field like social work, taking classes in macro practice, mental health, and policy analysis provide better preparation. A lawyer who wants to become a mental health advocate should look for electives that stress mediation or laws related to physical and mental heath and disability. If coursework like this is unavailable, taking classes outside the major or volunteering at an advocacy agency is recommended.

Listing all potential majors or roads to this work is probably not feasible. It may be more useful to understand the competencies required for different jobs that bear this title. The following skill-sets might help individuals better comprehend what might be required for them to become a mental health advocate with the following specialites:

  • Family and Self-advocacy — Knowledge of current mental health and health care rights, understanding of laws pertaining to disability, and possession of interpersonal skills
  • Educator — Understanding of mental illness, diagnosis, and treatment, awareness of laws related to mental illness and rights, counseling or therapy skills, ability to use psychoeducation in individual and group settings
  • Lobbyist — Thorough understanding of public policy and laws related to mental health, ability to practice policy analysis, strong writing and speaking skills, and, ideally, professional training in the law or social work
  • Advocate — Legal or social work credentials, counseling and mediation skills, and comprehension of policies affecting the mentally ill
  • Administrator — Business skills, community organizing or macro practice training, and understanding of the issues the organization addresses.

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