Often it feels like a divide exists between those living with mental illness and the rest of the population. But really, mental illness touches the lives of us all in one way or another. As such, many want to be allies in the efforts to destigmatise mental illness but often don’t know how. This can lead to confusion, mis-steps and hurt feelings. We, as advocates, must consider how we can help these wannabee allies in their journey to support us.
There are many barriers to being a successful ally. For one, the way some of us choose to talk about and joke about ‘neurotypical’ people often isolates the very people who want to be our allies. Neurotypical people (people without experience of mental illness and/or intellectual/learning disability) are often the butts of jokes and memes on mental illness support pages. Often their efforts to understand and empathise are treated with contempt. For instance, neurotypical people are made fun of for their efforts to help and their suggestions or platitudes about mental health. And I get it, it’s annoying when people give unwarranted advice about yoga. But this is no reason to tar everyone with the same cloth. It’s a bizarre form of othering in which people who are often the victims of othering (people with mental illness) other those who attempt to relate to them. Wow, if I say ‘other’ another time I think I might pass out.
Through making fun of neurotypical people’s efforts to help we are actually losing the opportunity to create a keen ally. Yes, their words and support may be misguided but they have good intentions. Through advocating for ourselves and having conversations with these wannabee allies we can actually create change together. To my mind, there is no point in isolating neurotypical people from our space. Like it or not, neurotypical people play a huge role in destigmatising mental illness. They make up more of the population than we do. Therefore, they are an important part of the conversation. Isolating them and making fun of them is not helpful.
A more helpful way to engage with wannabee allies is to engage in open and honest discussions with them. And to remind them that ally is not a noun, it is an adjective. In turn, it is important for us to remember that being an ally (just like an advocate) is tiring and involves constant work and dedication to challenging equality and harmful stereotypes. We need to look out for each other as this sort of work can be exhausting.
I can understand not wanting to guide and ‘baby’ others. I know it is frustrating when people ask us questions they could simply google. But if someone is earnest and their intentions are true, it can be really worth while to support them in their journeys to become better allies. One of the things I have found particularly beneficial to share with allies is to not discriminate based on type of mental illness. It is one thing to spread the message about depression and anxiety. Every man and his dog is doing that nowadays (not to discredit the importance of this work). It is quite another thing to talk about complex mental illnesses and comorbidity. Unfortunately, many allies limit their work to the former and leave those of us with ‘scarier’ mental illnesses sitting in the corner wondering when we will be socially acceptable enough to talk about. This pseudo rejection from wannabee allies hurts deeply.
Something else I stress to wannabee allies is that posting about or talking about mental illness on mental health awareness days is not enough. You need to engage in these tough conversations on the regular because (remember) ally is an adjective, not a noun. As advocates, we need to support allies to have these conversations with their networks. And as allies, they need to lift out voices up and share our work and words as exemplars. Its quid-pro-quo.
The relationship between advocates and allies is a complicated one. Often, we as advocates may feel threatened or as though our allies are not doing enough. But at the same time, allies may feel isolated and misunderstood. But we need each other. Allies allow advocates to have our voices heard in novel places. And advocates educate and inspire allies. Together, with mutual support and common purpose, we can create the change we want to see in the world.