How to Find Mental Health Advocates in Your Community

When it comes to dealing with mental and emotional challenges, Ruth White, PhD, encourages people to prioritize their mental health in the same way they prioritize their physical health.

If you broke your leg and declined to get medical help, “your broken leg would never heal,” said White, a clinical associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “Your brain is just like another part of your body. Why not go to a doctor to talk about your mind and your emotions?”

Although nearly 1 in 5 American adults experienced a mental illness in 2018, less than half of those with a mental illness received treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Annual treatment rates among white adults with a mental illness in the United States were only at about 50 percent, while rates for Hispanic, African-American and Asian adults with a mental illness were close to or below 30 percent.

White says it’s not surprising that many people do not seek treatment.

“If you live in New York or California, then getting therapy is a norm,” she said. “That’s not the experience that most people have from other parts of the country, and that has a lot to do with how we perceive mental illness.”

There are a number of obstacles to seeking treatment for mental health conditions (PDF, 754 KB) that White and NAMI point out:


Some people of various cultures still see having a mental health condition as something to be ashamed of or fear that it will lead to discrimination.

Cost or lack of insurance

Without health insurance, visits to mental health professionals are often too expensive.

Shortage of mental health professionals

The general shortage of psychiatrists, counselors and therapists cannot meet demand. Those who do take insurance often have long wait lists.

Distance, transportation and child care

For those struggling with work schedules and other responsibilities, making arrangements for child care and access to transportation can be difficult.

Cultural competency and language barriers

Many cultures have a distrust of health professionals who they may believe do not understand how their background affects their experiences.

“One of the challenges is that mental health care should be integrated into primary care, and it often isn’t,” White said. “If it were the same as getting on the scale or getting your blood pressure taken, then you would see it as just part of health.”

Encouraging Community Members to Get Involved

Instead of seeking out treatment from a professional, the cultural norm for some communities is to turn to other trusted individuals like family members or religious leaders, White said.

Recognizing that various community members can serve in a screening capacity to connect individuals in crisis to professionals, many national and local mental health organizations are developing tools and courses to help train individuals on how to identify mental health concerns. These individuals can help provide “mental health first aid”  by performing a variety of functions:


Bring the community together by being nonjudgmental and willing to listen.


Foster candidness and diplomatic conversations to reduce stigma and negative attitudes about mental illness.


Discuss all the aspects of mental illness and encourage others to learn more from professionals.


Have resources readily available to share with people to spread mental health awareness.

The goal of training community members to serve in this way is not to provide counseling or therapy, which should be left to professionals. They can instead focus on normalizing mental health conversations within their community and encourage individuals to seek help if they notice somebody appears troubled.

These conversations aren’t always the easiest to start. Here are suggestions for talking about mental health from White and Mental Health America.

6 Tips for Talking About Mental Health With Someone in Distress

Ask how they are

Have a comfortable, conversational tone. If someone looks like they are in distress, it’s OK to say, “Hey, you’re not looking so great today. Do you want to talk?”

Be respectful and avoid judgment

Mental illness has nothing to do with intelligence, so the conversation should reflect their age and development level; don’t characterize their mood as crazy or weird.

Take them seriously

Beware of trivializing how they are feeling. Avoid saying things like, “I’m sure it’s nothing.” Instead, focus on their needs and guide them to help. Remember to let them talk.

Be genuinely attentive and make yourself available to talk again if needed

Be present when you engage the other person, look at them, and acknowledge their responses.

Don’t be a gossip

Gaining trust is difficult. If you really want to help, don’t share someone else’s mental health experiences with others.

Have a phone number or resource for mental health help handy

Be ready to offer contact information for services that can help them. “If you provide concrete help, then people are more likely to get it,” White said.

Who Should Participate in Mental Health Trainings?

The more appropriate question might be, “Is there anyone who shouldn’t receive these trainings?”

Those who work in education, health care, emergency care, the justice system and social services may be the first people who come to mind when thinking about potential mental health advocates. But communities should also think about other people who can do outreach.  

In Charlotte, North Carolina, No Grease Barber School has been offering a Mental Health First Aid class in its curriculum for a few years. Business owner Damien Johnson said the training seemed like the right fit for barbers.

“In a first interaction with a client we can learn everything from when they were born to their first job, their first child, their divorce,” said Johnson. “Now that we’ve been equipped with the right information, and the right resources, we can point people in the right direction.”

Where to Search for Potential Mental Health Advocates in Your Community

Barbershops, hair salons, nail salons, spas and tattoo parlors

These professionals have the opportunity to chat with customers for extended periods of time and learn what’s going on in their lives. Clients may also be more likely to develop longer-term relationships with specific service providers.

Faith centers

Members of congregations may feel more comfortable opening up to leaders of their faith, who are sources of counsel in other areas of their lives. Encouragement from a religious leader to seek out professional help could be an important step in overcoming barriers to treatment.

Sports leagues and fitness studios

Participating in sports and fitness activities requires bonding with teammates and trusting coaches and trainers. Building that camaraderie can open the door to honest conversations about mental health.

Recreation centers and senior centers

These centers host and organize a number of community activities ranging from clubs for specific hobbies to town festivals. As centers where gatherings occur, they can provide access to the large numbers of people and serve as a hub to identify influential leaders in different segments of the community.

Retail shops and markets

Local business owners and employees can often develop personal relationships with community members. For people-facing workers, weaving check-ins into their regular interactions can be seamless.

Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues

Like retail stores, many community members develop strong relationships with the local restaurants and their employees. Bartenders, for example, may be able to spot when a regular patron seems troubled. These strong relationships coupled with the more relaxed environments can make food and entertainment venues an optimal place to open up natural conversations around general well-being and mental health.

Financial businesses

Money is stressful. For many people, talking about finances can make them feel very vulnerable. Having financial professionals such as realtors and bankers who understand this stress and can be on the lookout for when mental health issues are becoming concerning can be helpful to clients.

“It’s not about whether or not somebody can take the lead. It’s whether or not they do,” White said. “Whoever is a person that the community respects and listens to and takes direction from, those are the people who should be having these conversations.”

Resources to Help Engage the Whole Community in Conversations Around Mental Health

One of the most well-known training programs for helping people in crisis is Mental Health First Aid, which offers classes nationwide. Trainings are tailored to various groups including teens, students and teachers on college campuses, colleagues in workplaces, first responders, veterans and people who live in rural areas. Learn how to find a Mental Health First Aid course near you.

Other organizations, such as the National Empowerment Center and National Child Traumatic Stress Network, also offer training programs. You can find additional programs, organizations and mental health resources below:

Mental Health Organizations 

  • Active Minds: focuses on college students and mental health and has a presence on more than 800 campuses.
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America: fact sheets and guidance on the prevention, treatment and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD and co-occurring disorders to the public and professionals.
  • The Asian American Psychological Association: fact sheets and other tools for advancing the health and well-being of Asian-American communities.
  • Black Mental Health Alliance: focuses on educating the community about trauma-informed practices and culturally competent approaches to mental health treatment.
  • The Jed Foundation: partners with high schools and colleges to strengthen teens’ and young adults’ mental health, address substance misuse, and implement suicide prevention programs and systems.
  • access to U.S. government mental health and mental health problems information.
  • Mental Health America: community-based nonprofit dedicated to addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and to promoting the overall mental health of all Americans.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness: nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness; provides information on signs, symptoms and treatment of mental illness and offers phone and text helpline.
  • National Institute of Mental Health: lead federal agency for research on mental disorders; NIMH is one of the 27 Institutes and Centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the largest biomedical research agency in the world.
  • National Latino Behavioral Health Association: addresses the needs of Latino populations in the behavioral health arena.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: operates a toll-free lifeline hotline (800-273-8255) and works to prevent suicide by providing information on mental health.
  • Prevention Institute: promotes community participation in prevention and health equity.
  • Silence the Shame: focuses on education and awareness around mental health through community conversations, Mental Health First Aid training and more. 

Mental Health Resources

Mobile Mental Health Apps for Individuals in Need of Support

  • Anxiety Reliever: tracks users’ anxiety symptoms to help identify triggers and has relaxation exercises.
  • Headspace: provides meditation and mindfulness exercises to reduce anxiety and stress as well as improve awareness.
  • MoodTools: targets depression and provides education about risk factors, approaches to treatment, videos and more.
  • Sanvello: guides users through deep breathing and behavioral exercises and teaches them how to replace negative thinking patterns with positive thinking patterns.
  • Self-Help Anxiety Management (SAM): helps users understand and manage anxiety disorders through self-help exercises and private reflection

Created by the MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California