Speaking on Behalf of Someone with Mental Illness

August 3, 2020 Nicola Spendlove

When we were little, I spoke on behalf of my brother a lot because he had a speech delay. He would regularly mix up or mispronounce his words, and I would find myself acting as some sort of amateur translator when he spoke to anyone outside our immediate family. My most commonly used phrase was, "What he's trying to say is . . ."

My parents would often scold me for intervening. They'd explain that if I always stepped in to speak on behalf of my brother, he'd never have the opportunity to develop communication skills for himself. This was a lesson I had to learn all over again when my brother became acutely unwell with anxiety and depression in 2014.

When Good Intentions Cause Harm

Speaking on behalf of someone with a mental illness may come from a good place -- for me, it was always because I wanted to protect my brother. I was so hurt by all the ignorance in the wider world about mental illness, and I wanted to shield him from it. When conversations about mental illness got heated, I would swoop in and nip them in the bud with the speed of the little girl who once spoke over her brother in the playground to stop other kids from noticing his speech impediment.

I see now that I knocked my brother's confidence in both situations. In both situations, I was inadvertently teaching him that his voice wasn't strong enough -- that he needed me to speak on his behalf in order to be heard. 

The truth is, he doesn't, and he never has. When I stopped translating for my brother as a kid, he quickly learned the changes he needed to make to be easily understood. When I shut up and let my brother speak on his own behalf about his experience with mental illness, I was stunned by his patience, coherence, and wit.

You Can Still Advocate

I believe there's a very important difference between speaking on behalf of someone with mental illness and advocating for someone with mental illness. I still advocate for my brother sometimes -- in situations where people are discussing his condition without him being present (this really annoys me), in wider discussions about mental illness (something the unfortunate friend who described Kanye West as "crazy" learned the hard way), and in very particular situations where he is so deep in crisis that he can't verbally communicate (this is something we've discussed in advance and is in line with his wishes). 

The key difference is that all of these conversations are now relayed back to my brother so he can give me feedback on how I did and what to change next time, rather than me trying to shield him from the conversations. It may be my mouth that the words are coming from, but it's now him driving the message. 

I'm interested to hear what your journey with speaking on behalf of someone with a mental illness has been like -- leave a comment.

APA Reference
Spendlove, N. (2020, August 3). Speaking on Behalf of Someone with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 20 from

Author: Nicola Spendlove

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