How to Be a More Effective Mental Health Advocate

When I first began my career as a psychologist, I certainly didn’t think of myself as an advocate and didn’t participate in advocacy efforts to improve mental health services. But as I began to work in public mental health settings, I became more acutely aware of the important work of mental health advocates and I got interested in learning more about advocacy.

Over the past several years, I’ve been fortunate to be able to engage in mental health advocacy initiatives at both the state and Federal levels. I’ve talked to and corresponded with state legislators as well as my U.S. Senators and Representatives about pressing mental health issues. I’ve also connected with local, state, and national organizations that work tirelessly to promote better care for individuals with the lived experience of mental illness. Recently, I’ve served as the faculty sponsor for campus-based undergraduate and graduate student advocacy groups.

Certainly my most influential role model for mental health advocacy has been psychologist Sheila Schuster, Ph.D. Sheila has been the premier mental health lobbyist here in my state (Kentucky) for over 30 years. She is widely recognized as the voice and face of mental health advocacy in our state and she has been instrumental in promoting many initiatives to improve mental health services.

Sheila teaches an introductory legislative advocacy class every year, and she always shares her “Commandments of Advocacy” for how to be a more effective mental health advocate. With Sheila’s permission, I’ve slightly adapted her commandments, with a few additional comments. Here they are:

1) Register and vote

As Sheila says, “You must be in the game to play!” As a registered voter, your elected legislators will pay far more attention to you if you are one of their constituents. Also, as a voter, you carry the power of either supporting or not supporting a given candidate with your choice on the election ballot. A democracy calls for the vote and the voice of the people!

2) Know the players

Get to know your legislators and other key policy makers who are leaders or who have influential roles on committees which can endorse the mental health initiatives you are supporting. Sheila always emphasizes the importance of making personal connections with these individuals as a key first step in garnering their eventual support of your issues.

3) Study the issues

Become well informed about the issues you are supporting. Do your homework and research so you can speak accurately, knowledgeably and in a timely fashion to legislators, community groups, and other key supporters. Sheila reminds us to practice the “elevator speech,” which is what you would say if you had only 30 seconds on an elevator with a legislator to deliver your key points clearly and succinctly.

4) Understand the rules of the game

Laws do get passed, but the process is often a slow and arduous one. As Sheila is noted for saying, “Those who love sausage and the law should watch neither being made.” Understanding the inner workings of the political process is vital to efficiently move your issues along through the legislative maze.

5) Build partnerships

In addition to working with your elected legislators, get to know the leaders of mental health agencies, consumer-focused organizations, and other advocates. Build coalitions, share resources, and work together to achieve your shared advocacy goals. As Sheila says, “put a face on your issue” by asking people who have experienced mental health issues to share their personal stories and challenges with elected officials. Often these personal accounts can be the tipping point to gain support for a key issue.

6) One person can make a difference

Sheila tells several poignant stories about how a phone call from even one constituent to a legislator was influential in gaining support and passage of an issue. Or how just a handful of calls to a legislative committee helped sway them in the desired direction. We often underestimate our power as individuals to influence policy making, but let’s not forget that sometimes one voice is all it takes to turn the tide.

7) Be willing to compromise

You won’t be successful in getting every initiative passed in its original form. Bills get revised and modified along the way through the legislative process. Sheila has said that sometimes we have to stop and give in on some small points of contention in order to achieve the larger objective of getting the main components of our initiatives approved. Or sometimes we may need to focus on first getting just one piece of a larger legislative issue passed.

8) Stay connected

Sheila notes that it’s important to stay in contact with legislators throughout the year and not only during the legislative session. In fact, she advises that often the best time to meet and talk about issues is when the legislature is not in session, as policy makers then have more time to engage in extended discussion about current and emerging issues.

9) Never give up

As Sheila knows all too well, one single piece of legislation may take many years of advocacy work before it is finally signed into law. Persistence is key, and each year the landscape changes as new legislators are elected. Leadership positions and key committee assignments will also change, which can sometimes improve the odds for passage of a particular issue. Legislators often equate persistence with commitment, so don’t give up!

10) Remember the Golden Rule

Sheila says the “most important” advocacy commandment is to treat policy-makers as you would want to be treated, as we were taught in the “Golden Rule.” Show respect and courtesy and don’t forget to say “thank you.” Sheila is well known for sending handwritten thank you notes, which really stand out in today’s digital age of emails, tweets, and texts.

Thanks again to Dr. Sheila Schuster for allowing me to share her advocacy commandments. Hopefully they will inspire you to become more involved in advocacy and help you achieve your advocacy goals.

So here’s a question: What can you do to be a more effective mental health advocate? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

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