Help Wanted: Good Citizens to Support People with Mental Illness

In school, we all learned several ways to be a “good citizen”: vote, participate in community service, be a good neighbor, follow the rules, and treat others with respect. All of these are important responsibilities which contribute to a better society.

But did you ever stop to think about how you can be a good citizen by supporting people with mental illness? This is not something most of us were ever taught when we were growing up.

Consequently, many intelligent, well-intentioned people don’t know much about mental illness or are misinformed about what it is, and they may feel uncomfortable around people with mental illness. Also, the comments or words they use to describe people with mental illness are sometimes insensitive or disrespectful.

So what if you want to help but you aren’t sure how to begin? Let me suggest several simple but important ways you can learn how to be that “good citizen” and clearly show your support for people with mental illness. I’ve listed them in order, from options that take little effort to ones that may require a larger commitment of your time and energy.

Learn the facts

Understand the basic facts about mental illnesses. Mental illness can affect anyone, and 1 in 4 adults will experience a mental illness in a given year. Treatment is effective, it’s widely available, and people do recover, but over half of the people with a mental illness never receive care. One good resource to learn some of the basics is this fact sheet from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Shatter the myths

As you learn the facts, it’s also important to understand and debunk some of the myths surrounding mental illnesses. For example, it’s often stated that people with mental illness are prone to be violent. Actually, they are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. In fact, they are 10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime. Another incorrect assumption is that mental illnesses are just a weakness or character flaw. The fact is they are disorders influenced by many biological and environmental factors. Check out this article from the US Department of Health and Human Services to see more of these myths and the real facts.

Show respect

Many negative terms and labels are used to describe people with mental illness. Insensitive or inappropriate language creates stigma and discrimination toward people with mental illness. It’s vital to respect the dignity of each individual, regardless of their mental health issues or diagnosis. The recommended rule of thumb is to use “person-first” or “people-first” language, which focuses more on the person, and doesn’t define them by their illness. For example, it’s better to say “Mary has schizophrenia” rather than “Mary is a schizophrenic.” To learn more about people-first language guidelines, here’s a useful brochure from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

Make a donation

Make a donation to one of the many organizations that do great work in support, education and advocacy for people with mental illness and their loved ones. Since there are several terrific ones, I won’t make specific endorsements, but just search online or ask local mental health contacts to help identify some of these types of organizations. Then make a contribution to one or more groups that are fighting the good fight. While monetary donations are always welcome, many groups will also gladly accept contributions of gently used items such as electronics or clothing.

Get a first-hand account

Another simple but meaningful way to support people with mental illness is to understand their life experiences, their challenges, and their personal victories. Sit down and talk with someone who is willing to share their story about their own illness. Or read one of the many excellent autobiographical accounts of people who have dealt with mental illness and who have thrived despite facing significant obstacles on their path to recovery.

Attend an event

Attend a mental health event in your area to learn more about mental illnesses and efforts to promote better mental health services. This is also a great opportunity to meet persons with mental illness, advocates, and other supporters of mental health initiatives. Many groups will offer free seminars, charity walks, support groups, family support and educational resources to help you become more aware of current issues related to mental health care in your community and across the nation.

Volunteer

Offer a few hours of your time on a regular basis to do volunteer work for one of the organizations that offer services and supports for people with mental illness. In this way you can further increase your knowledge and awareness and also gain satisfaction from directly helping others who need support. Be enthusiastic in promoting the good works of the organization and recruit others to help with their worthy causes.

Help someone in need

If you have friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers or other contacts who are struggling with mental illness or perhaps just emotional distress, reach out to them. Help them connect with resources such as local mental health support organizations, useful books and websites, and how to access professional help if they are having significant concerns or they are in crisis.

Consider further advocacy

Take your support for people with mental illness to the next level by getting involved in legislative advocacy. Share your views and concerns about the mental health system with your legislators and policy-makers. Connect with other mental health advocates who are working to create or amend laws and policies that will improve services and supports for people with mental illness.

Through these important steps, you can become a good…no, a great citizen as you support people with mental illness. Take action now. The need is great. With your generosity, enthusiasm, knowledge, respect, and compassion, you really can make a difference.

So, here’s a question and a call to action: What can you do now to help support someone with a mental illness? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

  • Katrina Milburn

    I show my support by getting involved in legislative advocacy. I Share my views, concerns, and ideas for solutions about the mental health system with local and state legislators/policy-makers. I also connect with other mental health advocates who also work to create or amend laws and policies to improve services/programs to support for people with mental illness.

    I also started New River Lifeline, I’m a 24/7 Crisis and Community Contact for anyone in need. I know from personal experience how much I wanted and needed help but struggled finding the right help I needed. There are resources out there that a lot of people are unaware of. As a person with Lived experience I do not judge, I work with individuals and families and provide help needed to fit their unique needs. This service is 100 percent voluntary, I do it because I understand the desperation for help and the need for services like this. People are more willing to reach out and ask for help when they know they will not be judged and that the help is coming from someone who has struggled also.

  • Katrina, thanks for your wonderful advocacy! I wish more people had access to resources like yours.

  • Katrina Milburn

    Thanks David! I have to say that I haven’t always had “resources” and I’ve struggled and have had to fight, fight hard to get to where I am today. I don’t have nice things, I make it by with the essentials and by helping others. I am fortunate that a group of wonderful people noticed my selfless acts and my civic duties around my community, who brought it to the attention to the Governor of Virginia. Almost 10 years ago I lost everything and everyone in my life… I became homeless, cold, and desperate. My family was ashamed of me and I had no one to turn to for help. I am very lucky to be alive today. I may not have nice things in my life but I find happiness in helping others and advocating for better mental health care. I will never forget what it felt like to lose hope so I continue to fight for the ones who need a voice to speak up and say “This is not ok”… Love your blog David, you very wise and kind and I find your blog very useful as well as inspirational 🙂

  • Katrina, I’m inspired by you and by your courage and compassion! Thank you!

  • jeff banks

    We are all good citizens and we who have the knowledge can give our experience to those who need it most, so they can achieve their expectations…

  • Great sentiment, Jeff! Thanks!

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