There is a quote I often think of when considering the importance of being at the table where decisions are made. Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa once said, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.” I believe this is especially true for decisions made in regard to policies affecting people in recovery from mental health and addiction issues. As a person in recovery myself, I make it a priority to be more knowledgeable about public policy and how that will affect my life, and also the lives of my peers.
I got involved in public policy advocacy eleven years ago, and it has been a passion of mine ever since. I was fortunate enough to have some great mentors that had years of experience doing grassroots public policy advocacy. I came to the realization that many times policy makers really are looking for information on behavioral health, because that is not their expertise. Most of them are very open to suggestions regarding mental health and addiction policy. They also like to align themselves with grassroots advocacy which helps their image in the community.
Strategy is important when conducting public policy advocacy. Knowing when and where to deliver your message, and how to craft that message is crucial. Over the years I have picked up some “habits” from my mentors and from experience that I practice when considering tacking a public policy issue. A good foundation for your advocacy will be to familiarize yourself with the legislative process, and with any allies and decision makers at your local level. The “habits” as I call them are listed below.
- Investigate. Look into what the policy makers are considering, what do your peers and allies think are the issues, and look for issues being considered that fit into your priorities.
- Evaluate. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of being proactive or reactive on every issue. An example of a proactive strategy is taking action when a piece of legislation is introduced or advocate for introduction of the legislation. A reactive approach is monitoring legislation and taking action if the legislation is taken up by the decision-making body. Remember, you may choose to be proactive on some issues and reactive on others.
- Defend Your Position. Gather materials that you will need to back up your position. Consider factors such as who might challenge it and why, and who will support the issue and why. Consult with your allies when forming a position, and make sure they stay involved throughout the process.
- Educate Yourself. Familiarize yourself with the structure and policy making process of your local decision-making body. Know which representative on that body is responsible for representing you and your local community. Listen for what the elected officials care about, and who the key players are. Know what your role as an advocate is in the process, and where you fit in. Keep in mind factors such as who is running for re-election in the near future and relationships between various decision makers.
- Develop a Plan. Identify issues that are important to you and your allies. Identify Individuals who will support your position, and know who will oppose it and why. Identify coalitions and groups that will support your position, and consider what their priorities are. Work together with your allies to develop a position and create a plan that is specific, and assigns activities and roles to team members. Activate your alliance through consistent and frequent communication. Make sure everyone understands their responsibilities in the plan, and be certain everyone is on board to implement the plan on schedule. As part of consistent communication always follow-up, monitor and report progress to the group.
- Take Action. This is where all you’re planning comes into practice. Implement the actions you identified in your plan such as making appointments for face to face meetings with members of the decision-making body. You may also decide to write letters or e-mails, make phone calls and distribute any materials such as position statements that you have developed. Whatever the plan is, implement it fully and keep to timelines and other details in the plan. It is also helpful to remain flexible, because the plan may need to be changed at a moment’s notice when your issue begins to take shape. Your plan also may include strategies such as organizing a community meeting, and asking allies to assist with a phone tree or letter writing campaign. If you have met with a policy maker and you committed to sending additional information to anyone do so immediately.
- Follow Up. This is one of the most important habits. Many times, we all get so busy with the action part of the plan that we forget to follow up with descion makers and allies on what the final outcome of all the planning and activity was. Sending thank you letters to policy makers regardless of the outcome may pave the way for a future collaborative relationship. Always inform your allies of the outcomes of your activity, and celebrate successes.
I believe that we will see many proposed changes to behavioral health policy at both the state and federal level within the next year. This is due to several factors including further implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and reactions by lawmakers to recent acts of violence around the nation. With society and the media inaccurately linking acts of violence to mental health issues, the stigma is worse than ever. Research tells us that people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators. The general public has such a misunderstanding and lack of knowledge around mental health issues that fear is the ultimate response. Both of these issues are critical for individuals in recovery to take action on. We must support behavioral health parity to improve access to mental health and addiction services. We must ensure that policies that govern involuntary civil commitment provide a full measure of due process, and protect the human and civil rights of people experiencing mental health issues. We must also include community-based alternatives to civil commitment such as peer ran respite centers to address the issue of mental health crisis.
Anytime loss of liberty such as civil commitment is at stake, we must make sure there is due process, and that the assessment of the need for involuntary treatment is based on imminent risk of harm to self or others. Such standards for civil commitment should not include criteria that are based on a prediction that an individual may become violent at an indefinite time in the future; a supposed “lack of insight” on the part of the individual, which is often no more than disagreement with the treating professional; assumption that there is a potential for deterioration in the individual’s condition or mental status without treatment; or an assessment that the individual is “gravely disabled” or “not able to care for one’s self.”
People in recovery must unite and initiate conversations with policy makers that lead to action for improving their quality of life, protecting their human and civil rights, and build strong communities. Policy makers must value and seek input from the recovery community on policies that impact our lives. Together we can create and implement public policy that builds and strengthens communities that are recovery informed and oriented.