In the most general terms, an advocate is a person – or sometimes an organization – that represents those who cannot properly represent themselves. Advocates exist in almost every sector of society, from labor to law to animal rights, but they are of particular importance when dealing with issues relating to mental health. Mental health advocacy is geared in part toward protecting the rights of those who suffer from a mental illness or impairment of some sort. Another primary goal of mental health advocacy lies in promoting awareness, educating the general public to the causes and effects of mental illness, and attempting to eliminate stigmas and stereotypes.
Mental health advocates should not be confused with therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists. Though it is possible for those involved in mental health advocacy to hold any one of these titles, when functioning as an advocate they are not providing counseling or attempting to ameliorate the mental disease of a specific individual. Mental health advocacy, to a large degree, is concerned with providing information to both the general public and to the users of mental health services. The advocate often seeks to establish an ongoing dialogue and open the lines of communication, operating on the premise that enhanced knowledge will eliminate fear and ignorance.
A mental health advocate, for instance, might help an individual learn to deal with various agencies himself. He might sometimes act as a mediator or liaison between a mentally ill individual and various service agencies. This could involve dealing with hospitals, law enforcement, or doctors, especially in terms of helping the mentally ill with issues related to diagnosis or medications. The advocate may consider the practicalities of an impaired person’s work environment. More than anything else, a mental health advocate listens, and attempts to find solutions that will allow a person to lead a happier and more fruitful existence.
The field of mental health advocacy has several different sub-sets. Some advocates are licensed attorneys, and specialize in legal advocacy for the mentally ill within a country’s judicial system. Ordinary citizens can easily function as advocates, usually more on a one-to-one basis with a patient. This might take the form of providing transportation, helping with daily tasks, or volunteering to assist with a mental health organization. Peer advocates are those who have used mental health services, and are capable of holding support groups or discussion sessions with those who are still under care.