One of the best ways to become known as an expert in your field is through public education. It's non-intrusive. Most people won't feel like they're being solicited. And through public education you can raise awareness of how mental health professionals can help people cope with life's problems.

Public education takes many forms. On this blog I've addressed a few, including making handouts and tips sheets, and giving presentations to both professional and lay audiences. These can have lasting impact, but you probably won't have time to do more than a few per year.

In between, you have countless opportunities to deliver public education on the fly - through comments, social media, and everyday interactions. There's not a lot of preparation involved - just be alert and be responsive.

As a mental health professional you've accumulated much wisdom about mental processes, relationships and coping mechanisms. Because these are so obvious to you, you may assume that they are common knowledge. THEY ARE NOT! So share your wisdom whenever you can.

Three Laughing Friends in CafePublic education on the fly

Pass along interesting news on topics related to mental health. When you come across news related to your area of expertise, post a summary on your Facebook page (don't violate copyright by posting the entire article) and add your comment as to why it's important. Do the same via Twitter. Also, talk about it with friends and with clients, where appropriate.

Help correct mis-information. News media do their best to fact-check the information they publish, but sometimes they do get things wrong. More often they leave things out - not necessarily intentionally, but because they are not aware. A common omission is the importance of therapy in treating depression and anxiety, as well as ADHD.

If you see an error or omission in a news story, write a comment. For example here's an excerpt from a comment by psychologist David Lipton in response to a New York Times article, “The Rise in Diagnosis of ADHD”:

“…Medications have their place. So do behavior management strategies, with and without medications. The problem is that behavior management strategies are labor-intensive. It’s a lot easier to just look for a magic pill.

Medicating a child, especially on a long-term basis, is not something that should be taken lightly.”

If the publication does not have a comments section, contact the reporter. Not only will you be educating the reporter; you may also get interviewed for a news story in the future.

You can help correct misinformation in everyday conversation as well. For example, let's say that someone brings up the subject of violence perpetrated by the mentally ill. You can help correct mis-assumptions by noting that the mentally ill have lower rates of violence than the general population.

Visit your legislators. Explain how access to mental health care helps increase productivity and reduces overall medical costs. Bring statistics with you, but also be prepared to describe typical scenarios.

Take advantage of opportunities to explain human behavior and motivation. Unsolicited advice is rarely welcome. However, you can teach people simple psychological principles during the course of normal conversation. For example, suppose you're on the sidelines of a soccer game, chatting with another parent about getting kids to do their homework. You might say something like, "I've learned from research and from experience that there's less yelling when we use screen time as an incentive to get the homework done, rather than taking it away as a punishment for not doing homework."

Or, if you're chatting with a friend about having trouble losing weight, you might say, "I know what you mean. It's hard to stick to a plan. But I read some research that getting an extra hour of sleep and minimizing stress where possible, can help keep your willpower up."

In those situations where people (non-clients) do ask you for advice, resist the urge to say, "It's unethical for me to give you specific advice..." Instead answer in a general way, such as: "Many people find that..." or "Studies show that..." Such replies are educational, while circumventing the assumption of formal professional advice.