By Trish Lockard
While sitting in a waiting room at a doctor’s office in 2014, I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. As we got acquainted, she told me she was deeply involved with an organization called the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I hadn’t heard of it, but I was intrigued because I was not a stranger to mental illness.
My maternal grandmother experienced debilitating depression for years, culminating in her suicide in 1939. My mother was diagnosed with depression and experienced what I believe was PTSD, following her own mother’s suicide. I had grappled with mental health challenges myself, and I had been taking medication for depression and anxiety disorders for many years.
As I learned about NAMI that day, I knew instinctively this was an organization to which I could happily devote my time and energy. I had always shied away from volunteerism because no cause had ever inspired the passion required to keep me motivated. Now, eight years later, I am still a NAMI member and vocal activist for mental health.
With some personal reflection and review of scientific literature, I’ve come to understand that volunteering itself can be an act of self-care.
Naturally, the dialogue surrounding activism and volunteerism centers on how others will benefit from volunteer work that you do. But years of research demonstrate that there are benefits for volunteers themselves. Whether you are a family member or caregiver for someone with a mental health condition — or have the lived experience yourself — volunteering can be a positive step toward improving your health and yield many benefits:
In 2018, my long-time friend, psychologist Terri L. Lyon, hoped to create an easy-to-follow roadmap for people to identify the cause they are most passionate about (because focusing on one issue is more effective) and determine how to use the gifts they already possess to make a difference for that cause. With me as her editor, she published the book “What’s On Your Sign?” in which she introduced her unique “5-Step Activism Path.” The steps are:
Perhaps these steps seem intimidating at first glance — but with reflection and time, they can lead to a meaningful new path. One example of following these steps is Knoxville jewelry artist, Christinea Beane. As someone with mental illness, Christinea makes jewelry for other people struggling with their mental health, to offer hope, raise awareness and remind them that they are not alone.
As I address in the book I co-wrote with Dr. Lyon, “Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism,” we can’t underestimate the personal and wide-reaching impacts of volunteering and activism, particularly in the mental health field. Your work could not only boost your emotional well-being, it could also be a critical step toward ending stigma, achieving parity, and increasing mental health services and support. You can make a difference.
Trish Lockard has been a volunteer for NAMI Tennessee since 2014. Mental health care became her personal passion following her family’s experience with mental illness. Trish is a nonfiction editor, specializing in memoir, and a nonfiction writing coach at Strike The Write Tone. Contact Trish at email@example.com.
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