So what is advocacy? Merriam-Webster defines advocacy as: the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal. Advocacy generally refers to the process of trying to persuade others to support your position or point of view (https://www.autismspeaks.org). Advocacy can arise in many situations, and there are different kinds of advocacy including: self-advocacy, group advocacy, peer advocacy, citizen advocacy, professional advocacy, non-instructed advocacy, public advocacy and policy advocacy. There are many other forms that one can choose, or a group can choose, to provide.
So why is it important to advocate? Advocacy for those with mental illness and addictions is essential because it, (1) increases awareness of behavioral health issues that impact people affected by mental illness and addiction disorders and (2) influences policy and decision makers to positively impact those in your county, state and on a national level who are affected by mental illness and addiction disorders (http://mhaadvocacy.org/joomla/). Advocating in the form of providing education and awareness helps to eliminate stigma attached to both mental illness and addiction disorders.
So what are some basic principles and skills to be an effective advocate?
- Know the issue Have a clear and thorough understanding of the purpose for your advocacy.
- Communication Use active listening and appropriate language when advocating for a purpose, a group or an individual.
- Research Do your research on the issue or purpose. Go to a library or use the Internet. Talk with others who have had similar issues (peer advocacy). Keep your mind open to learning, as you’ll want to know about previous advocacy efforts with regard to the purpose/issue and how things may have changed since then. This could affect your strategy and approach.
- Planning Create an advocacy plan. Whether it’s advocating for an individual, a group, or whatever the cause might be, having a firm plan of action will strengthen your cause and bring others who are considered allies together. Part of the plan will be identifying opposition and any resistance you might face. You’ll also want to be open to recognizing areas of improvement that are needed, so that they these areas can be strengthened.
- Know the system It’s important to know who you will be advocating to. If it’s a behavioral health care system, you’ll need to find out who the local decision makers are and focus on them, or maybe learn whether those efforts have been unsuccessful. Who at the state level makes decisions? It will be important for you to know your decision makers and their stance on the issues for which you’ll be advocating.
- Be assertive Rely on the power of your arguments. Don’t be intimidated by another’s authority. Remember that you are advocating for a cause, purpose or, in some cases, for another individual or group.
- Using your story If this is applicable, sharing your personal story of how the issues you are either advocating for or, in some cases against, is a powerful form of advocacy.
- Be prepared for criticism When new ideas for change are proposed, expect criticism. Some leaders have adopted the attitude of “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Don’t let these criticisms distract you. It’s important to listen and consider others’ opinions or perspectives, but stay focused on the change you are advocating for.
Source: Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Core Curriculum for Improving Peer Service Delivery. Module 11. Advocacy, and http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/advocacy-principles/overview/main, accessed March 29, 2017
Here are links to two national advocacy efforts which have advocated for individuals with mental illness and addiction disorders: http://www.nami.org/ and https://www.facingaddiction.org/advocacy-action-agenda
Remember, advocacy is a powerful way to make a difference in people’s lives. The only way things will change is if individuals stand up for change – sometimes even when there are unspeakable odds. YOU can make a difference, and YOU can provide a voice for those individuals or groups who may be afraid to speak up. I hope the information provided has been insightful. Good luck in your advocacy efforts!