To truly experience wellness and recovery I have learned that I want to be, and have to be an advocate for issues that I feel passionately about. A big part of recovery for me has been learning to advocate for myself. When I began work on my recovery, I had no idea how to ask for what I wanted, needed and deserved. I don’t think I even knew what it was that I wanted. Over the years that has changed dramatically. I have become a seasoned self advocate. I know what I want for myself and work on it until I get it, or until I decide it is really something else I want and start working toward that. From time to time I have advocated for another person or a program. But now, with major cuts proposed in programs that are very important to me, and with the focus of our government being oppositional to many of my beliefs, I have become convinced that I must become a strong advocate in my community, region, and even nationally.
As I have gotten more and more involved in this advocacy work, , I have discovered that for me–perhaps not for everyone–advocacy is a wellness tool. I need to include it in my toolbox of things to do to keep myself well and to help relieve symptoms if I am feeling badly.
How did I discover this? Usually by January I am fighting to keep seasonal depression at bay. This winter that was not so. Today, as I write this column. it is March 1 and I realize I have missed my mid winter depression. Why? I think it is because I have been working hard on a public issue that I feel passionately about. I have called and written officials at all levels, I have gone to public meetings and spoken out–even when I knew my views were strongly opposed. I arranged a public education meeting that drew so much attention to the issues that there were front page stories in our two newspapers and a radio interview. The phone keeps ringing off the hook. Everyday there are arrangements to make. I call people I thought I would never have the courage to call. I even had a dialogue with the governor on interactive television.
I hope advocacy is a wellness tool for you as well because we are all moving into a time when the things that have been most helpful to us in our recovery–programs, services and technical assistance centers–are being threatened with cuts or loss of funding. I get at least one e-mail every day about troubling cuts of effective programs that benefit all of us. Our governments don’t seem to realize that it is much more cost effective to provide supports to our recovery, than to pay exorbitant costs as we go into crisis again and again and again. We all need to do everything we can to insure that the funding for the programs we find most helpful is not cut or eliminated. The more of us that speak out, the more likely it is that we will be heard.
Begin by thinking about those services that have been most helpful to you. They may be mental health services, vocational rehabilitation or it might even be your local library or an adult education program. Then be watchful. Read your newspaper, Listen to the radio. Talk to your peers. Read your e-mails. If things that you care about are being threatened with cuts, make a commitment to do something about it. If officials hear from enough people, they can change their view and their vote.
Get together with others–friends and community members– who have similar concerns and work together to develop and implement strategies to influence the people who make decisions. Set a time and place to meet, call several others that you know are concerned about this issue, ask them to come and bring along several friends. You may decide to make calls, do a mailing or set up an informational meeting. If you are lucky, others in the community may already be working on this issue and you can join their efforts
You could begin by making phone calls. This is not as easy as it sounds. You may be, as I was, a bit reluctant to call someone you don’t know. Try to let go of these fears. Figure out who it is you need to influence and give them a call. Perhaps it is a town or city official, your legislators, the governor or even the president. It’s scary the first time you do it. If the person you are trying to reach is not in, leave a voice message asking them to call you back. If they don’t call you back, call again the next day. Keep calling until you have a chance to tell them how you feel about these cuts. Ask them to keep you posted on what is happening with regard to this issue. Call them back when you have new questions or concerns. Keep your calls brief and to the point.
Send letters and e-mails–even if you don’t feel you are a good writer–clearly stating your case. I have been told that officials pay more attention to letters, but if all you have time for is a quick e-mail, go ahead and send it.
A fax is an excellent way to get attention. Again, make it brief and to the point. Don’t use too many words or people won’t bother to read it. For instance, if you are concerned about threatened cuts of technical assistance centers you might fax your congress people (you can get the fax numbers by calling their office) and say: Please use your influence to assure continued funding of the technical assistance center in any city, any state. This center has promoted the recovery and wellness of thousands of people at great savings to the mental health system. Or, I had not been able to hold a job for over 20 years. This center gave me needed skills. I now work over 20 hours a week. If the food stamp budget is being cut you might say: Do not cut the food stamp budget. I lived on the streets for over five years. If it weren’t for food stamps, I would have starved. I now have a good job and am able to take cae of my own needs.
Go to hearings. During the breaks, let officials know why you are there. If there is a chance for you to speak, go ahead and do it–even if you feel very scared and have butterflies in your stomach. Everyone goes through that. This is too important. Just do it. It gets easier each time you do it. Again, keep it brief and too the point. Everyone gets bored and stops listening if a person goes on for too long. Afterward, give yourself a nice treat–like lunch with a friend or night at the movies.
Perhaps someone is organizing an action of some sort–like a march to a public building or standing on a street corner with a well worded sign about the issue. Maybe you are on the committee or in charge of the committee that is organizing the action. Actions are a great way to let others know how you feel while being supported by your peers.
Avoiding winter depression is not the only benefit I have noticed of being an advocate and speaking out. I notice that my self esteem, self confidence and self respect have been all gotten a “shot in the arm”. I feel less stressed because I know I have done what I can. I have met and worked closely with many wonderful people. My circle of supporters, friends and acquaintances has grown. I feel much more connected to my community. And I have created some change in the world. All in all the payoff is great.
Mary Ellen Copeland, Ph.D. is an author, educator and mental health recovery advocate, as well as the developer of WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). To learn more about her books, such as the popular The Depression Workbook and Wellness Recovery Action Plan, her other writings, and WRAP, please visit her website, Mental Health Recovery and WRAP. Reprinted here with permission.