Stop the Stigma

Political Advocacy to Challenge Mental Illness Stigma

Political advocacy to challenge mental illness stigma

A lot of us in the mental health blogging world are already engaged in advocacy in terms of raising awareness, providing information, and supporting others living with mental illness. There’s another kind of advocacy, though, that many of us (including myself) don’t typically engage in, which is political advocacy.

Quorum.us says “Political advocacy is an act of supporting a change or creation of an issue on a local, state, or federal level. When participating in political advocacy, people voice their opinions through emails, letters, calls, and social media posts to their elected officials.”

Politics certainly isn’t everyone’s area of interest, and many of us are probably fairly disgusted with political antics. However, to budge structural stigma related to mental illness, action needs to come from the top down, not just from the bottom up. For spending on mental health services to increase, and for changes to occur in the way mental health services are delivered, governments need to act. Perhaps we can do our part by telling them how we’d like to see them act.

Will anyone listen to us as individuals? Probably not so much, but there are a lot of us out there dealing with mental illness, which means a lot of voters. There are already mental health charities doing a lot of work in this area, and if we all took a bit of time to write to our local elected officials about some of the arguments that these charities have already put forward, perhaps it would add a little bit of extra weight to that work that’s already being done.

Strategies for effective advocacy

In a journal article entitled Effective Advocacy Strategies for Influencing Government Nutrition Policy: A Conceptual Model, the authors identified a number of strategies that would help public health advocates with limited resources get their message to government most effectively. These included:

  • Identify “policy windows,” when the time and context is right for legislators to be interested in a particular issue
  • Research the values and beliefs of decision-makers, and frame the issue to appeal to those values and beliefs
  • Form coalitions or alliances (for us as individuals, I would interpret this as supporting advocacy work already being done by mental health charities)
  • Simplify the problem and solution being presented to policy-makers
  • Emotional personal stories of constituents can have a greater impact on politicians than presenting hard facts
  • Build public support

The Schizophrenia Society of Canada has put together an Advocacy Tool Kit that explains what advocacy is and offers tips for dealing with politicians and the media. These are some of their recommendations:

  • Know the issues and research your facts
  • Present your own story as an example of a real person in the official’s constituency
  • Tie your issue into constituency issues or issues that the politician has already shown an interest in
  • Target the right level of government for the change you’re after
  • Be strategic with timing; for example, newly elected politicians may be looking for ideas to champion
  • Develop a few key messages (they suggest 3) that are clear and compelling

Letter-writing

Phone calls, in-person meetings, and town hall events are all options for connecting with your local politicians, but they might be a bit much for anyone with limited internal resources, especially when mental illness symptoms are ongoing. Letter-writing and email are easier options as an advocate, although they may have less impact.

These letter-writing tips come from the Schizophrenia Society of Canada’s Advocacy Tool Kit:

  • 1st paragraph: clearly state that you’re a constituent and say what your issue is; if you’re writing about a particular piece of legislation, clearly specify it
  • 2nd paragraph: focus on your own story/experience related to the issue
  • Next paragraphs: lay out core facts and 3 key messages regarding the issue
  • State your “ask,” the tangible thing you want them to do for you; ideally, the result would be a win-win for both sides
  • Thank them and request a response
  • Include your full name, address, and other contact info

Story-telling

Storytelling is an important part of grassroots advocacy. Quorum recommends a three-step approach to this kind of storytelling:

  1. Once upon a time: this is what’s going on in your context on a day-to-day basis
  2. A shift occurs: describe a moment that caused, or could cause, circumstances to change, and what events that would lead to
  3. The happy (or not so happy) ending: what would happen if legislators do (or fail to do) what you’re asking of them

Interested in sharing your mental health story for non-political advocacy purposes? This post on ways to share your story has lots of options.

Volunteering and piggybacking

As individuals, we may not have a lot of power, but we can add our voices to work that’s already happening. Some of these organizations are looking for advocacy volunteers. I’ve also included links to some of the political advocacy work they’re already doing that you could piggyback your efforts onto.

Getting started

This is new to me, but it’s an area where I’d like to start taking some action. Over the last year or so, I’ve sent some pre-formatted emails to government through UBI Works, a Canadian organization supporting universal basic income. My plan now is to start small and write a handful of emails over the next year to my provincial or federal government representatives or government cabinet ministers, piggybacking on issues that come up in the news or work that charities are already doing.

For World Mental Health Day in September, I emailed both my provincial and federal representatives. In emails to both, I mentioned right off the top that I was a constituent. I get a response from the federal MP that seemed partly prefabbed but tweaked to address the specifics of what I brought up. The provincial MLA’s office offered me a Zoom meeting, and while I’m not functional enough in spoken communication for that to be workable, I thought it was cool that they offered. No one has ever responded to any of the pre-formatted emails I’ve sent via UBI Works, so the individual “I’m a constituent” contact seems to be more effective at getting noticed.

Even if one person getting noticed doesn’t lead to action, multiple people getting noticed might.

Is there a small political advocacy step that you could take in support of a mental health issue?

Political advocacy campaign resources

If you’re feeling particularly keen, these sites have resources for people conducting advocacy campaigns:

This Advocacy 101 video comes from the AFSP.

A Brief History of Stigma: the more you know, the better the position you're in to advocate

This is part of a series of posts on topics that come up in my new book, A Brief History of Stigma.

You can find it on Amazon and Google Play.

16 thoughts on “Political Advocacy to Challenge Mental Illness Stigma”

  1. This is brilliant – it’s great to see something so empowering, because while we can feel like we have no voice, there are still things we can do that’ll make a difference. The tiniest difference counts because it all adds up. I do agree on the change being required at the top echelon, something which is unlikely we can affect, at least not on our own. We can already see improvements though, when you compare mental health awareness, services and other provisions today to those 10, 20, 50 years ago. Bit by bit there’ll be more change, all thanks to each of these things you’ve noted here. xx

  2. I liked this. Though I didn’t see “shriek at them on Twitter and compare them unfavourably to barn animals” on the list.

  3. Great post! I don’t know if you saw it but last week, or maybe it was the week before NAMI sent emails asking for people on their email lists to sign the pre-written letters that they created. They did a nice job. Each time I opened the email a letter already addressed to my representatives was presented and all I had to do was electronically sign and hit send.

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