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HannaCespedes May 24, 2021

May mental health awareness be with you!

It is May and all of the mental health practitioners are breathing a heavy sigh of relief that Mental Health Awareness Month has arrived. Breathe, counselors, breathe, we made it! Sure, counselors and therapists out there have always provided support, worked to raise awareness and advocated for mental health long before the pandemic. But this past year or so has been unique and mental health advocates and professionals have stepped up in big ways that could not have been anticipated.

Taking time to reflect on what awareness and advocacy in action mean and look like in these unprecedented times can offer us some relief. Mental Health Awareness Month could not have fallen at a more convenient, albeit ironic, time. One fellow clinician described the state of our world right now by expressing that, “we are now entering into the mental health crisis and recovery stage of the pandemic.” Similar data to a battle or war zone, there is a time to fight and a time to cease fire. In between the fighting and ceasefire, soldiers are wounded, neglected, and left to die until the medics come in and drag them to safety where they get patched up, are allowed to recover, and then considered “fixed.” I believe this is where we are in the pandemic. We have all been hurt, our clients are wounded, but it is our job to do more than simply patch them up and send them back out. Sure, meeting weekly or biweekly certainly feels like we do the best we can in session and send them out into the harsh world only to come back a few days later to revisit the same wounds. Some health care professionals might view that as a failure, proof that the “talking cure” cures little to nothing in reality. However, this could not be further from the truth and within this context lies the heart of mental health advocacy.

While working during the pandemic, I have redefined the concepts of awareness and advocacy for clients and now view them in a multidimensional way. Advocacy for mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic has looked very similar to the battlefield described above in three main ways:

  1. Giving clients a voice

    Advocacy also means that we sit and heal with those who are suffering mentally during this time, even without a COVID diagnosis. It means we listen to ALL of our clients when they reflect on their challenges during this time. As counselors, we never compare trauma and get into the “this trauma is worse than yours!” game that many outside of our field do… why would we ever do the same during this time with covid related struggles?

  2. Creating safe zones for clients

    Carl Rogers said it best: the therapeutic relationship, and alliance, is one of the most healing factors in therapy. Having a space for clients to share their experiences that is free of judgement and nurtured through empathy is the most undervalued advocacy work we do. In a socially distant and volatile world, the therapy room can and should remain a safe space.

  3. Encouraging clients to keep fighting
  4. Encouragement functions as body armor for everyday life.  What a crazy concept, equating advocacy work to wearing armor. You might still get a little bruised or battered, maybe even break a rib, but it saves your life. The goal of advocacy and raising awareness for mental health is not to heal the world and rid it of all mental health challenges but rather to give every client customized body armor as we work to create a society that is more supportive, inclusive, and accepting.

Of course, advocacy and awareness for mental health work exists beyond therapy sessions and in public forums of all types.  Take time to think about what advocacy and awareness mean to you this month and beyond and don’t be afraid to redefine them. For me, their meanings have shifted a great deal and that adjustment has shown me that advocating for my clients can look big or small, both of which are equally valuable. In doing so, I can help them continue to fight on the path to recovery and reassure them that they are more than capable of overcoming. 

Hanna Cespedes is a counselor working on her PhD at Mercer University located in Atlanta, GA. She is currently working within private practice and hopes to serve her local community through promoting awareness for mental health in all walks of life and breaking the stigma surrounding serious mental illness.
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