How to Be a Mental Health Advocate


Millions of people in the U.S. are affected by mental health challenges. In fact, one in five adults will experience a mental health issue at some point this year.

Whether we know it or not, every one of us is likely connected to someone who is dealing with a mental health challenge. Thanks to mental health advocates, the stigma surrounding mental health is decreasing. A mental health advocate is anyone who desires to support the mental health community through spreading awareness and providing emotional support.

MyHealthKC sat down with Joe Thorne, LSCSW, Clinical Coordinator and Team Lead at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission Behavioral Health, to understand how to become a mental health advocate.

Help us understand what someone who is experiencing depression/suicidal thoughts is struggling with.

First of all, it’s important to understand that everyone experiences depression differently. What may seem like not a big deal to you or me can be crippling to someone with depression. Imagine feeling uninterested in or unable to experience pleasure in any activity. This is often accompanied by feeling worthless or feeling inappropriate guilt. All of these are symptoms that may not always be apparent on the outside.

Depression can also come with physical challenges like changes in appetite or sleep patterns. This can be either an increase or decrease in appetite as well as sleep. The person may have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Sometimes the emotional pain of depression becomes so difficult to bear that a person may see suicide as their only option.

What do you think influences a person to become depressed/suicidal? Is there something that we can impact positively as an outsider?

Life factors (trauma, loss, poverty, discrimination, relationship struggles, etc.) can certainly contribute to depression, but many with depression can’t point to a specific reason why they are depressed. It is often like other illnesses (high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.) where something in our body is not working the way it should. Understand that someone may not always know the answer when asked about why they’re depressed, and such a question can even be anxiety-inducing for some. It’s important to let these people know that their feelings are valid and they have support regardless of the reason behind their feelings.

As a member of this person’s community, the best thing you can do is to help fight the stigma of mental illness by becoming more educated. Courses like Mental Health First AID are designed to help the public recognize possible mental health struggles and how to respond to the individual appropriately.

How can family members support a loved one with depression/suicidal thoughts?

Recovery from mental illnesses is much more likely to occur if there is family support. Listening non-judgmentally is very important. Making someone feel guilty for contemplating suicide will only hurt. Instead, you can facilitate or encourage your loved one to get professional help. Self-help strategies like exercise, meditation, time with loved ones or faith can provide further support during a challenging time.

Family members may want to join a local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter and take some of their education classes. Family members could also benefit from Mental Health First AID, a skills-based training course designed to help you assist someone experiencing a mental health crisis.

How can friends and community members support someone with depression/suicidal thoughts?

Friends and community members are a big part of a person’s support system, just like family. Learning how to recognize the warning signs of depression and navigate conversations successfully are important for helping a friend through a mental health crisis. QPR Institute has an online course dedicated to teaching their suicide prevention method of Question, Persuade, Refer.

What is helpful to say? What should we avoid saying?

If someone confides in you that they’re having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to stay calm and let them know you are concerned. Listen actively and provide empathy. Offer practical assistance. Encourage professional help. Avoid judgmental statements about their suicidal thoughts. Don’t trivialize, belittle or dismiss the person’s feelings.

What does it look like to be an advocate? What are some things we can start doing?

Becoming a mental health advocate starts with education. Help decrease the stigma by using person-first language that avoids using a condition to define someone (i.e. an individual with schizophrenia, not a schizophrenic). Avoid derogatory terms (crazy, psycho, etc.). Take it a step further by attending some training courses and sharing your knowledge with others.

Are there volunteer opportunities for mental health advocates?

Yes—I would recommend participating in a NAMI walk or a Remembrance Walk. These are events that serve to remember those we have lost to suicide as well as to educate the community about how to prevent more suicides from happening.

What resources does AdventHealth have for people dealing with depression/suicide?

The point of entry for mental health services at AdventHealth is our Behavioral Health Assessment Center (BHAC) 913-789-3218. BHAC staff are also available to assess individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis in AdventHealth’s ER. AdventHealth has inpatient beds available on our Behavioral Health Unit (BHU) for those who require an acute psychiatric hospitalization. Additionally, AdventHealth’s Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers a 30-day outpatient group therapy program for both Mental Health and Addiction-Dual Recovery.