Stress Less Week: Prioritizing Self-Care as a Mental Health Advocate

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Welcome to the Winter 2014 Stress Less Week blog series! Learn more about how to host a Stress Less event on your campus.

I have come to believe that caringfor (1)You’re a mental health advocate. That’s a tough job with a lot of responsibilities. When you “come out,” so-to-speak, as someone who struggles with mental illness or advocates on behalf of those who do, you open yourself up to the very likely possibility that other people will want to talk to you about their own struggles.

On one hand, that’s a really beautiful thing. It speaks volumes to the importance of story-telling and bearing our truths so that others may also come forward.

But there’s a downside to being so open and accessible about these very tough issues. You have to know and accept your limits as a person. And I struggled for a long time before I finally realized that.

How do I know all this? Here’s my backstory: When I was a sophomore at the University of Maryland, I was raped. I was silent about it for a long time, until I finally got into treatment for PTSD and depression and started to open up about what had happened to me.

It was like I had been carrying this huge boulder all by myself for months and months. But when I finally started speaking out, I felt so much lighter. I felt alive again. I felt like myself. And all I wanted to do was speak even more and hopefully allow other people to do the same.

So that’s what I did. I became an outspoken sexual violence prevention activist. I wrote a policy change on my campus to mandate sexual assault education for every incoming student (it passed!). I became a peer educator for the campus sexual assault response center. I spoke at Take Back the Nights and SlutWalks and survivor vigils. I was on the local nightly news and in the student newspaper. I testified before the University Senate and the state General Assembly. I was even featured in a blog post from The White House.

Naturally, with all this speaking out, people started to associate me with sexual assault. And slowly, people in my various social circles started disclosing to me that they too had experienced sexual assault.

Then the messages started coming more and more. Facebook, texts, emails, phone calls — I received dozens of disclosures of sexual violence. Some just wanted to thank me for speaking out. Others were in crisis and needed help, to varying degrees of severity.

I answered each message, helping as best I could. But as the messages continued to pour in, I got overwhelmed. I got scared.

Yes, sexual violence had directly affected me when I was raped. But what I didn’t realize until more people started disclosing to me was that sexual violence had been present in my life the whole time — I just didn’t know it.

That overwhelming realization manifested itself into severe anxiety. And that anxiety turned to a deep depression. Suddenly, I didn’t feel like a strong, capable survivor any more. I felt weak and scared, unable to help people who were going through the same struggles I had seemingly overcome.

And that’s how I realized, dear ones, that even though I am a survivor and an advocate and an activist, I have my limits. I am not a clinician. I am not a trauma specialist. I cannot help every person who discloses their experiences to me.

And that’s OK.

It’s OK for me to tell a person, “Thank you so much for reaching out to me and telling me your story. I really encourage you to call this hotline or find a counselor in your area.”

It’s OK if some days that’s all I can do.

It’s OK for me to say to myself, “Today, I need to take care of myself and only myself.”

Because the fact is, I’m still in recovery. Yes, there are times when my rape seems like a distant memory that I’ve dealt with and tucked away. But healing is cyclical and there are always bouts of depression and anxiety, even though over time they’ve gotten shorter and less severe as my coping skills have grown.

So here’s what I want you to understand: Yes, you are a mental health advocate and leader on your campus. Yes, people look up to you and come to you for advice and support on mental health issues.

But your job at the end of the day is to take care of yourself. Managing self-care as an advocate is a hard task, but it’s one that we must prioritize if we are ever going to last in this field.

It’s hard to hear people’s sad stories. It just is. And at some point, if you don’t stop to take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to help in any capacity whatsoever.

Obviously, if the person is speaking about suicidal ideation or there’s an emergency of some sort, you need to call the police or an RA. But it’s okay for your work to end there. You’ve done enough and your next step is to help yourself cope with the very tough reality of hearing about someone else’s traumas.

As you move through the end of the semester and into the spring, please keep in mind your own limitations. Know that it doesn’t make you a bad mental health advocate or friend or ally. It makes you a person who is taking care of themselves. And that’s a beautiful thing.