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At 14, I started to advocate for mental health by sharing my struggles with suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety publicly. Whether in classrooms, on panels, or before cameras, I welcomed the opportunity to educate and empower others by helping to destigmatize conversations and inspire recovery.

However, over time, I started to have negative experiences. During one presentation, an audience member asked an uncomfortable question about my diagnoses, and I felt pressured to respond. Another time, a reporter misrepresented my personal experience, distorting my story. Not knowing how to handle the situation, I remained silent.

Unfortunately, this happens to mental health advocates all the time. Public speaking and storytelling can be difficult to navigate, especially when some people are more interested in soundbites than your journey. Storytelling can bring up traumatic thoughts, feelings, or experiences for you or those around you. It can also risk disclosing information you might not be ready to share publicly or fully understand how it can affect your future.

But if you’re like me, then storytelling is an important part of who you are and not something you want to give up altogether. Fortunately, at 16, I learned about strategic sharing, an emerging method for sharing personal experiences that can keep you safe while still advancing your goals. It emphasizes your ownership over your story, and that you can choose to share only what you are comfortable with. Strategic sharing emerged from the foster care movement in the 1990s, according to the National Federation of Families, and has since become a key resource for beginner and seasoned advocates in all fields alike.

So, how do I practice strategic sharing as a mental health advocate?

  • I identify my motivation for sharing. Before sharing, I ask myself what I hope to achieve. Is it to educate others? Advance advocacy goals? Help someone realize they are not alone? Whatever the reason, I know that I should never feel coerced into sharing my mental health journey. Exploitation can happen when someone asks you to share your lived experience when you don’t fully understand the reasons why. My advice: Be cautious of others’ intentions and how they may affect your motivation. If something doesn’t feel right, ask a trusted adult or fellow advocate for support. It can also be helpful to take a step back and imagine a friend in a similar situation. What advice would you give them?
  • I establish boundaries for what is okay and not okay to share. Vulnerability should always be safe, consensual, and healing. I remind myself that I choose what parts of my story to share and that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable or to only share some parts of my journey with some people and different parts with others. I also remember that I can agree to share something and then change my mind at any time for any reason. My advice: Each time before you share, consider writing down what you feel comfortable and uncomfortable sharing. You might choose to withhold experiences that trigger emotional responses like crying or shaking, or ones that you don’t have all the words to describe. You can always change it later.
  • I note with whom, where, and under what circumstance I will be sharing. As part of preparing, I always consider the audience, location, and circumstances of the situation. I remember there is always a time and place to share and appropriate and inappropriate situations with which to do so. My advice: Some advocates find it helpful to create 3-5 personas or fictional representations of people who might be in the audience. Think about what their identities are and then tailor your story accordingly. This can ensure that your story connects with the audience in a positive way.
  • I evaluate the possible impact it might have on myself and others. Storytelling is powerful, and it can also have unexpected impacts. When I’m preparing, I consider whether my story includes the names or any identifiable characteristics of other people, and then make a plan to always ask for their consent before sharing. This is especially important if the sharing experience will be recorded, published, or broadcasted. In addition, I think about the fact that once I share something online, it can exist forever and be hard to control. My storytelling has impacted the perceptions my friends, relationships, employers, and strangers have about me. My advice: Imagine five different headlines about your story as some of the first search results on Google for your name. Then, consider whether that is something you’re comfortable with being public.
  • I reflect on the experience. After sharing, I take a moment 5 minutes after, 5 hours after, and 5 days after to reflect on how it went and take inventory of all of the emotions that come up. If I have a negative experience, I try to identify what went wrong and determine whether any possible solutions are within my locus of control. Additionally, I make a plan for self-care. Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown recently coined the term vulnerability hangover, which is a phenomenon that occurs after sharing something intimate with others and feeling raw or exposed after. Sharing without reflecting can also result in the “beautiful mess effect,” which is when people perceive others’ vulnerability as courageous but their own as weakness. My advice: Celebrate your accomplishment in a way that promotes self-care. For me, I like to get ice cream or hang out with friends and family afterward. Then, check in with yourself by doing a body scan or journaling.

As with any skill, the more you practice, the better you will be. The National Federation of Families created a strategic sharing workbook with educational material and real-world practice examples. Youth MOVE National, a youth advocacy organization, also created a list of strategic sharing resources.

Storytelling can be challenging to navigate initially, but it’s possible to do so safely and responsibly while creating meaningful change. Despite several negative experiences, I was able to testify before the United States Senate Committee on Finance at 17. By applying strategic sharing skills, I corrected misinterpretations immediately and debriefed with friends and family afterward.

Prioritizing myself made the opportunity one of my favorite advocacy memories and biggest life accomplishments. Strategic sharing can help you create memorable and worthwhile experiences too.

Screenshot of my virtual testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Fiance at the Hearing “Protecting Youth Mental Health: Part II – Identifying and Addressing Barriers to Care” at 17.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call, text, or chat with the Lifeline at 988 or


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