What does Mental Health Allyship Really Mean?

The world is a mosaic of different experiences, backgrounds, and privileges. Even if you don’t experience the same hardship as others, you can be supportive and help remove oppression to build a more equitable society. This is called allyship, a subject worth exploring.

What is Allyship?

To understand allyship, it’s important to understand privilege. Privilege simply means you have a more advantageous experience than others based on genetic, socially constructed and/or earned factors. 

Some examples of privilege include being born into the dominant culture, identifying as cisgender (a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex). Privilege also comes with education, with financial means, and with access to resources. It can also be impacted by having good mental health. 

You may have the privilege of enjoying good mental health, but not everyone does. An ally is someone who recognizes their privilege and then takes action to amplify the voices of those living with serious mental illness. Understanding the struggle can allow one with the privilege of health to walk alongside one with mental illness. 

What is a Mental Health Ally?

A mental health ally is someone who takes the time to learn about the issues facing those living with mental illness, then adjusts their daily behaviours to help remove the stigma and barriers that may accompany these conditions. Allies are not replacements for counsellors, therapists, or clinicians, they complement them. Anyone has the potential to be a mental health ally.  

To be a mental health ally, there are a few important steps to take. 

  • Explore the concept of privilege. If you have the privilege of good mental health, consider all the ways this has benefited you, for example, never having to take time off work due to anxiety or depression; feeling accepted by others; feeling comfortable in your own shoes. 
  • Learn about the issues facing people living with mental illnesses. Take the five minutes needed to step up and Be There for someone else. 
  • Consider the ways in which stigma prevents people asking for help. Be mindful of the words you use to describe a person. For example, your colleague Janine may have bipolar disorder but Janine isn’t bipolar. Swap the diagnosis in that last sentence for “cancer” and see the difference. Avoid using mental health diagnoses to label unrelated scenarios (like calling someone who enjoys a clean home “OCD” or someone who is simply down as “depressed”). 
  • Educate yourself. To provide support to someone in a mental health crisis is something anyone can learn. Begin by knowing  what to say and not to say.
  • Familiarize yourself with available resources.

Supporting a Loved One Living with Mental Illness

You can be an ally for your friends or family members living with a mental illness. It starts by providing a safe space for them to talk about their experience. 

  • Begin by literally “saying what you see.” For example, “I notice you don’t talk as much when we get together, is everything ok?” Simple descriptions of what you notice can open the door for conversation. 
  • Focus on listening, being non-judgmental, and using validating language. “Hear them out” and don’t jump in to try to fix things. Summarizing what you’ve heard them say can also be helpful.
  • Make eye contact. Give your friend or family member the time and space to share with you. You can invite them to speak by being comfortable with silence while they think of what to say.
  • As the Be There program says: Don’t judge, don’t preach, just listen! But remember, you are an important part of this relationship too, so you will need to set boundaries

Interested in Other Ways You Can Be a Mental Health Ally?

Another way to be a good ally is to support causes that are working to improve the lives of those who live with mental illness. 

Eli’s Place will be a rural, residential treatment centre for young adults living with serious mental illness, with a focus on recovery and resilience. Mental health allyship will be a fundamental part of its programming. If you would like to support our mission, please click here.

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