Charting Your Own Wellness Course was DBSA’s theme for Mental Health Awareness Month in May. We asked members of our Young Adult Council to share their experiences and tips to strengthen their sense of self and wellness by practicing self-advocacy skills.

The four life areas identified are school, work, healthcare settings and personal and home life. Here are some ways that you can work on self-advocacy that are consistent through each of these areas:

  • Reassure yourself that regardless if you are communicating with a teacher, supervisor, medical provider, peer or family member, know your boundaries and comfort level when discussing different topics. You know your mental health best.
  • There is no shame in asking for help, such as requesting accommodations from an instructor, bringing a family member to a doctor’s appointment, or sharing your experience in a support group.
  • Taking breaks to self-reflect and to become an expert on your own body, mind, and emotions can foster self-acceptance.
  • Approaching conversations with an open curiosity is often helpful in shifting from a closed mindset to creating a mutually safe exchange.

Young Adult Council member Gwyneth shares that she began advocating for herself at an early age in elementary school when she received her first of many mental health diagnoses. She continued to hone  that skill all the way through her years at Georgetown University. “After years of practice, it got easier and less emotionally draining. I managed to teach myself that I have worth and a voice that people need to respect and listen to.”

Gwyneth developed resilience despite a lack of support, such as being told by multiple school administrators to drop out. From her experience, she recommends: 

  • Understand that accommodations are your rights and there is no need to apologize for needing to access help, support, and tools.
  • Address discomfort because there may be solutions. For example, at times Gwyneth lowered her expectations of her healthcare and medications, but learned that better options were available if she raised the issue with her medical providers.
  • Research and gather resources to develop a plan if circumstances escalate, requiring action.

Like Gwyneth, Maddie found herself becoming increasingly in need of utilizing self-advocacy in her day-to-day life. Maddie identifies as having been a highly sensitive and non-confrontational child so speaking up for herself was not something that came easily to her. She recognized that she needed to speak up with peers, friends, and family. When she first experienced panic attacks in high school, she didn’t know what was happening–just that it was interfering with every aspect of her life. She confided in her mother, who helped her seek treatment with a therapist. Maddie notes, “Though those two things alone may not have solved every problem and stopped every panic attack, it was the beginning of a journey that would only serve to help me in the long run.”

Maddie encourages others to specifically:

  • Ask classmates for notes during days you are not well enough to make class or to pay attention when you do attend.
  • Regularly talk with your parents or a trusted adult about your mental/emotional state so that if you ever need to turn to them for extra support, they will understand.
  • Although asking for help can feel vulnerable, seek and create a support system—no matter how small—that you can feel safe turning to because “asking for that little extra aid can be the difference between life and death.”

Maddie has also learned how to approach supervisors and more management-level co-workers by understanding there are different communication styles, and finding the balance for herself in how she expresses her personal and professional needs in a work setting.

Maddie offers these reminders when you are trying to gather the courage to confront a work authority figure: 

  • You are both humans before you are employees. Power structures are social constructs and at the end of the day, we are all humans that deserve the same amount of dignity and respect. When you think of it this way, it can be easier to see your boss as just another soul trying to make it in the world, and you can gather the courage to have a conversation about your needs in your position.
  • If you need accommodations due to a physical, mental, emotional disability or extenuating circumstances, gather your resources, especially any legal ones if applicable, and present your boss some potential solutions.

Self-advocacy in any and all areas of life is an evolving skill. Practice in settings with people you trust and you can build your confidence over time.