Firmer advocate and fiercer activist

Firmer advocate and fiercer activist

29 March 2022

One year ago, almost to the day, I was putting the finishing touches on my doctoral thesis. I was fortunate to occupy the rare position of ‘doctoral student who genuinely adores their research project’ up until its conclusion. I had been privileged to travel my country of Aotearoa, New Zealand and meet with young people who engaged in participatory, collaborative workshops with me as we explored together a reimagined and improved youth mental health system.

I had written papers sharing my results with academics and mental health professionals, offering advice on how our existing services and clinicians can be more youth friendly in their approach. I spoke directly with and presented to these professionals to discuss the recommendations in detail. With the increase in mental health funding in New Zealand, I felt hopeful that there was a glimmer of change in the atmosphere. Above all else, I was excited and hopeful to be joining an international community of professionals committed to improving youth mental health through critical and collaborative methodologies which acknowledge the harm to and neglect of young people in much of the field’s history.

However, as I wrote my concluding remarks and reflected on the process of conducting my research, I felt undeniable anxiety.

In writing my thesis and sharing my work with transparency, I was also sharing parts of my identity I hadn’t shared before. This was the first time I had ever publicly attached lived experience to my name, and I wondered how this would be seen by my clinical and research colleagues in the future.

While many of my conversations and presentations to services and professionals had focused upon advocacy and improving youth mental health care, this was the first time I had publicly and permanently labelled myself as an advocate or criticised the current youth mental health system in Aotearoa, New Zealand. I was committing this aspect of my identity to permanent record. I worried about backlash, whether future employers in the mental health system would view this negatively, if my perspectives would come across self-righteous.

Reflecting now on that time, I remember the conflict I felt within myself about my dual identities of mental health professional and young advocate with lived experience. I remember feeling alone, with few confidants within my professional spaces with whom I felt comfortable discussing why this mattered (and matters) so much to me.  I recall the immense investment I had put into carrying out and disseminating this research which was both so deeply personal and so inherently political, whilst feeling uncertain about my own ability to occupy both spaces.

It was with this in mind that I had applied for the Orygen Global Youth Mental Health Advocacy Fellowship and embarked on a journey with 11 other remarkable young people from around the world. I recognised that in order to embrace this work fully, with confidence and with safety, I needed to know and understand more about what it is to practice and embody advocacy as a young professional. I needed a community to support and process the many complexities and challenges we face as young people with lived experience working in such intensely personal and painful spaces. I needed a plan to understand how best to approach my advocacy to be both effective and sustainable.

On entering the fellowship program, what I was first struck by was the feeling of cameraderie. In this space, I felt seen and heard by others who shared my passions, my goals, and my frustrations. We all came from different backgrounds and world views, with different approaches to our work, and it was this diversity that made us stronger. If mental health is a wicked problem (and it is), it is the solutions of many coming together that will create a lasting impact. Seeing this potential reignited my hope, my ambition, and my determination.

The greatest impact of this fellowship has without a doubt been my confidence in owning and embracing my narrative, identity, and position as a researcher, clinician, and advocate with lived experience. While I have always enjoyed speaking publicly and sharing recommendations through presentations, I feel more authentic when I hold this space now that I am sharing my mission with greater transparency. With this sense of purpose, I have been able to step into my work with determination and confidence. I see my mission more clearly – to improve the quality of mental health care in Aotearoa not only through promoting youth-friendly practice to clinicians and to services, but by directing policy and decision making towards young people. Through this fellowship, I have been fortunate to expand into the area of policy, including writing my first white paper with the support and encouragement of my fellowship mentor.

The most fulfilling part of the work has been becoming more open to sharing the challenges of advocacy. It can be hard to acknowledge the burn out, the frustration about seemingly immovable perspectives, the lack of value on young people, and the isolation that can go hand in hand with advocacy. This fellowship allowed me to consciously consider how I find allies and how I care for myself when I face these challenges. Now more than ever, I see how many of us pursue our work as mental health professionals, researchers, and educators because of our personal experiences. By honouring these layers to our identity, we encourage others to step forward and we foster an environment of change.

I wrote in my thesis that I had emerged a ‘firmer advocate and fiercer activist’ thanks to my collaboration with the youth of Aotearoa. Truthfully, advocacy is a lifelong journey filled with evolution and personal growth. I have now stepped down my pathway as an advocate, activist, researcher, and clinician with lived experience who is committed to improving the quality of mental health care for the most vulnerable young people. I have connected with a global community of changemakers committed to supporting each other. Now, I take new steps into not only fostering my own journey but supporting other professionals to embrace the rewards and challenges of advocacy with me

About Jessica

Jessica completed the Orygen Global Youth Mental Health Fellowship in 2021. She is currently based at the Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy/Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living on a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Jessica has previously conducted research at the University of Auckland and at Harvard University's School of Psychology where she worked as a visiting fellow on a Fulbright Award.