By Emma Will
To become an advocate for positive change in your community, all you need is a story. People often believe that to be involved in mental health policy and advocacy work, they must know all the facts and statistics about mental health conditions, or the intricate details of specific bills and legislation. That could not be further from the truth. If you have a story to tell, you can become an advocate.
Stories help policymakers understand what it is like to live with a mental health condition, from either your experience or the experience of someone you know or love. A good story can illustrate a complex or abstract policy issue clearly for someone who may be further removed from a topic. It makes the issue personal. Facts and figures can support your advocacy, but your story can move hearts and minds.
I see this firsthand in my work at NAMI. I work directly with our advocates from the field: I facilitate grassroots advocacy training sessions, incorporate personal stories in our federal policy work and prepare advocates to meet their policymakers. A member of Congress may not remember numbers and statistics, but a compelling story will stick with them for a long time.
At NAMI, when we coach and train advocates, we remind them of three things:
While your story is always right, how you tell it matters. We live in a world of sound bites and social media — how will your story break through and catch your policymaker’s attention? Here are some tips to keep in mind as you develop your story.
As NAMI members, we know all about advocacy. Many of us have had to be strong advocates for ourselves and our loved ones — at doctors’ offices, hospitals, school, work and sadly, in the criminal justice system. This is what we call personal advocacy: working to improve circumstances for yourself and your loved ones. When we engage in policy advocacy, we are working to improve circumstances for our communities. Policy advocacy is about improving the systems that impact people with mental health conditions.
When you tell your story for policy advocacy, you will want to connect your lived experience to larger issues in your community. This might be hard to do — policymaking is complicated! Connecting your experience to a broader issue will remind you that you are not alone. Other people in your community have faced similar challenges.
So how do you develop a strong personal narrative?
If you write two to three sentences for each point, you will walk away with a story that is powerful.
We are always collecting stories to power our federal advocacy here at NAMI. For example, we used stories from our advocates to show policymakers and the public the impact of the Affordable Care Act for people with mental health conditions in this video. You can share your story with us online here.
Reach out to your NAMI State Organization or Affiliate to learn more about how you can get involved in advocacy in your community. Ask if they offer NAMI Smarts for Advocacy — NAMI’s hands-on, grassroots advocate training program. Through NAMI Smarts you can learn more about how to use your story and work with your policymaker for positive change in your community.
Emma Will is the Manager of Advocacy Engagement at NAMI. She weaves personal narratives and stories of lived experience with mental health into NAMI’s federal policy work. She also manages NAMI Smarts for Advocacy. In her spare time, you can probably find her outside: running, hiking, skiing or kayaking. She lives in Washington, DC.
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