June 07, 2023

By Emma Will

Illustration of person using typewriter
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:

  1. Your story is always right.
  2. Your lived experience has value and meaning.
  3. You don’t have to have all the answers — just a clear ask of your listener.

Tips for Sharing Your Story to Advocate

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.

  • Keep it brief. Aim to be able to tell your story in 90 seconds or less. You probably won’t be able to do this the first time. Review your story and edit out any details that are not crucial. You want to leave your audience wanting to hear more.
  • Motivate with hope, recovery and resilience. Policymakers and public servants want to find solutions. If they feel hopeless or overwhelmed, they won’t be motivated to take action. If your story is not hopeful, focus on what would have helped you or someone you know.
  • Emotion should move, not overwhelm. If your story makes you cry, your audience will likely get overwhelmed and shut down. Remember, you don’t have to share every detail of your story — focus on the parts you can share comfortably. You also might find that you are not ready to share your story for advocacy. That is totally normal. Maybe with some time and healing you will be ready, or maybe your experience is too painful to share broadly. Be sure to give yourself grace through this process.

How to Write Your Own 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?

  • Introduce yourself. If you are sharing your story with a policymaker, be sure to identify yourself as a constituent. Share your relationship to mental health: Are you a person living with a mental health condition? A caregiver? A veteran? A mental health care provider? Be sure to let your listener know.
  • Share the details of your experience. What happened to you? What helped you get through it? Or what would have helped you or a loved one? And how has this impacted your life?
  • Connect your story to a larger issue. What is the need or problem in your community? What will help others who face similar challenges?
  • Make an ask. This is the most important part of advocacy: let your policymaker know what action you want them to take. You can ask for them to support a specific piece of legislation or to support mental health services more broadly. Here are some examples of strong asks:
    • “Congresswoman, can I count on you to make sure key mental health programs do not receive harmful budget cuts this year?”
    • “Senator, can I count on you to make our state’s mental health crisis a priority this year?”

If you write two to three sentences for each point, you will walk away with a story that is powerful.

You Have a Story…What Next?

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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