AN ADVOCATE MUST TUNE IN AND PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT IS HAPPENING.
We can no longer ignore the mass killings where we had clues by the perpetrators that they needed counseling and services of mental health.
We can no longer turn our heads away when we learn that school children are afraid to get on their school busses or afraid to go to school for fear of being “shot up.”
Isolation, lack of mental health care or delayed care, discrimination and neglect often prevent treatment of mental illness, and in the contemporary culture, we are adding new layers of need for the treatment of mental health. The World Health Organization records 460 million people around the world who suffer from mental or neurological disorders. The WHO says one in four persons has a mental health issue, some of them visible, only a very few violent.
They urge countries to move from large institutions to smaller, more personal community treatments and advocacy. Here is where every individual has a responsibility to consider becoming an advocate for mental health and the treatment of mental illness. It can be done on a small scale, or you can become as involved as your situation allows. YOU ARE THE PERSON WHO CAN STAND UP AND DO THE JOB, but first you need to know what an advocate is and examine some options for ways to advocate.
What is an Advocate?
An advocate is someone who speaks up for something or someone. We all come to advocacy differently. It may be natural, as in, “I need a bigger allowance.” Or it may be accidental, as in, “Stop bullying my friend.” Or you may be confronted by a need, as in “My child is afraid to go to school because of the shootings.” Or your core values may push you to advocate for justice or inclusion or an improvement of the operating system.
Sometimes you advocate JUST BY SHOWING UP by sizing up an issue without saying a word, even being an individual in a crowd. Or you may find a way to sway opinion to take the stigma out of the very mention of the words mental illness or mental health.
Important Pointers As You Begin
- Always take a positive approach. Assume good will on the part of the person or system you will work with, and communicate this assumption to them. Use positive documentation and give credit where it is due. Whenever possible, recruit those within the system to your cause.
- Decide where social media fits into your action plan, and recruit experts to help you if necessary. See “ Social Media as a Means of Advocating.”
- Follow up all activities, verbal agreements, conversations and transactions with a paper or email trail. This kind of summary gives everyone the chance to correct misunderstandings of what was said or done and can help jog your memory in the future.
- Do fact-finding. What is being done in this field in your community, state or nation wide? With whom can you collaborate? What are barriers to addressing the needs in mental health and mental illness, and how long have they been in place? Identify opponents to change. This is where someone says, “It has worked for years. We have always done it that way.” And this is where you answer in a positive way, making them feel good about what they have done, but offer an alternative way to evaluate the need. This is where you ask yourself, “Then why am I being nudged to help with this need?” You do not have to know the classifications of mental health in order to advocate, but your fact finding and observations may show you two categories defined by the National Institute of Mental Health: Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI). You may need facts to fit your sphere of influence to include statistics for the persons who are homeless, elderly, veterans, or specific facts for children, youth or adults.
- Pray and meditate on how you will advocate. Find fulfillment in the knowledge that God is “WITH” you in this discontent that forces you to advocate for change. Use your greatest discernment skills to know the value of your advocacy. Your faith community is often open to and can be recruited to work for change in attitude toward persons needing help. Include them in your advocacy plan.
- Paint a picture of where you are going. It is important to have one either of your own or of your group’s.
God didn’t say to Moses, “Go to the promised Land.” God told him he could take his people to a land of milk and honey, two staples in the diet of the Hebrews. God painted a picture. Share your picture of the outcome of your advocacy. Sometimes it becomes the group’s picture. Sometimes it becomes a peg to hang their ideas on. Sometimes you need to reframe the picture or just wrap it up and take it back to the office for another day.
Consider your Options
There is no one-way to advocate for change. We all use our gifts from music to writing, or publicity stunts to lobbying, conversational influence to organizational skills, or just an attitude of eternal discontent with things as they are. We advocate in different ways, all of them important, and it is important to consider the kind of advocate you can be at this time in you life. Three different forms of advocacy come to mind. Consider all three before deciding where you will begin.
Self-advocacy helps you get a raise or change in your job description. Or you might need to convince your children that you need more respect. Or you may have emotional problems and need a person to turn to. By telling your story in an appropriate setting you advocate for yourself and help raise awareness of situations involved in mental illness. This encourages others that they are not alone in their journey.
Online, simple steps you can take to do this are available at www.bevocalspeakup.com/be-vocal-for-your-community-mental-health.html
John knew he needed help, but he had no place to go and no one to talk to. One day he saw an elderly person sitting on a bench, and just sat beside her. She simply listened to his outpouring and showed she cared. He discovered she was part of a group of grandmas who just sat on benches to listen. He went back the next day and the next. She knew about counseling centers in the city, and he went to one. He found out that he had been an advocate for himself
Case advocacy requires involvement with others or with a group. You might even advocate for your own case on the basis of health care assigned to you. Mental health advocacy requires changing ideas close to home in your community or taking action where you see the opportunity.
One man who lived alone in a rural setting with a cliff view in front of his house witnessed a suicide from the cliff. After that when he saw an individual stay a long time at the lookout point, he went out and invited them to please come have a cup of tea with him. He listened to their stories, and they went back home. He saved many lives just by listening and showing that someone cared.
Cause advocacy has a widened scope, and may require extended knowledge of what is happening within the world of mental health. Research is required, resources are investigated and options are studied. Don’t be frightened by the time requirement, a cause can be started and investigated on many levels. One just needs to know where you are going.
Funding for a governmental group dealing with mental health had been cut. The general population was hopping mad about it but felt powerless until Shama spoke out in public, almost instantly becoming a leader galvanizing their anger into action. Shama inspired fact-finding and studied resources to bring publicity that inspired acceptance.
Each advocacy option has requirements of time, energy and gift — requirements only you can assess. It takes a little time to process where you belong, but you can become an advocate.
Your Next Step
After you examine your options for the kind of advocate you can be, your next step is to develop a plan for where you are going. Put it in writing, erase it, paste it, think it again, and, finally develop your plan. If you are working with a group to develop a plan, it may take more time as you listen to ideas and discover gifts within the group that can be used.
Remember: Every meeting of persons is a gift exchange. Your plan, the picture of it you create, others who are advocates and those working to become advocates reflect this truism. The gifts they bring to meetings demand respect and hearings. As an advocate you will “speak up for someone,” but you will also need to listen to those around you.
For guidelines on how to develop your advocacy plan see, “Develop Your Advocacy Plan.