Your Story: A Powerful Advocacy Tool
Legislators who make important decisions receive much of their information about mental illness the same way the general public does: through the media. While members of Congress also have staffers to study the issues, they rely on constituents for information. That means you. The best way to inform the legislators and give them an accurate picture of the reality of mental illness is to share with them the stories of those whom have had personal experiences with mental illness.
Why is it important to tell your story to legislators?
By sharing your story with a policy “ask” (such as requesting to increase the mental health care budget or protecting medications in Medicare) you put a face on mental illness and give it a voice; it becomes something real and tangible rather than something abstract. When you share your story with the legislators honestly, it allows them to understand the depth and reality of mental illness; not only that, it also helps them understand how their decisions affect people’s lives directly.
Real life stories are able to evoke a far more powerful response than bland facts and figures because it touches our humanities; the same thing happens when you share your story. When you share your story with your representatives, it helps them remember that when a decision about mental health policy is being made, it’s affecting real lives. Your story can forge relationships with elected officials so that when decisions about mental health policy cross their desks they think of you, their constituent. By helping your legislator see how it looks from where you stand, you can help improve conditions for everyone who lives with mental illness.†
Keep these thoughts in mind, when contacting your legislator:
- Your story cannot be wrong; it’s your own personal experience.
- Yourexperience has value and meaning.
- You don’t have to have all of the answers, just a clear “ask.”
Advocacy Story Tips
While your lived experience is an invaluable asset to our cause, HOW you tell your story can affect the impact you make. Here are some tips from NAMI’s grassroots skill-building program, NAMI Smarts for Advocacy on how to tell your story.
- Keep it brief. Your legislator is not your therapist. Focus on the important events that would move the legislators and leave a memorable mark on them.†
- Stick to the highlights. Aim for a minute or two. It’s like a movie trailerójust give them the parts that grab their attention and leave them wanting to know more. When they ask questions, you’ve caught their attention. ††
- Emotion should move, not overwhelm. Stories that evoke emotion are powerful, but if your story makes you cry, it may overwhelm others and they could shut down. Try to strike a balance between inspiration and realism.†
- Motivate with hope and recovery. Frame your story in a positive way. Mention and emphasize your recovery and that there is hope. Draw a realistic picture of what can be done to help those who battle mental illness, if you haven’t received the help that you needed, give them suggestions on what could help.
- Make an “ask.” Don’t be shy. Legislators expect requests from constituents.† Let them know what would help others, then put them on the hook by asking for their support. If they say “yes,” you have a supporter. If they say “no,” or won’t commit, you know you’ll need to follow up and build support.
This is a glimpse into how to tell an effective advocacy story, but nothing substitutes for the hands-on learning of a NAMI Smarts for Advocacy workshop. They’re free, fun and you’ll walk away with skills and confidence. Call your NAMI State Organization or Affiliate to see if there is a NAMI Smarts workshop coming up near you.
Start building a relationship with your legislators today. It only takes a couple of minutes to send an email or make a phone call. However if you are not comfortable with sharing your story with your legislators or if you want to do more, you can still be an inspiration and an advocate by sharing your story on NAMI’s You Are Not Alone.
Do you want to join NAMI and speak with members of Congress to advocate for individuals living with mental illness? Learn more about how to tell an effective advocacy story by watching NAMI's webinar on telling your story on NAMI’s National Day of Action, which takes place on Sept. 4, 2014 at the NAMI National Convention.