Self-advocacy is when individuals speak up for themselves and make their views and wishes clear. This can be very difficult to do at times, and there are skills and tools that can support self-advocacy, such as assertiveness training, crisis cards or advance decisions (formally known as “advance directives”) which set out a person’s wishes in case of any crisis. Peer specialists may engage in self-advocacy about their own needs or they may help coach their clients to become good self-advocates.
Being the expert on oneself and taking ownership of one’s wellness is an example of personal responsibility. Self-advocacy is a form of empowerment that includes making choices and decisions regarding treatment, having access to mental health or addiction education, understanding client rights, and feeling a part of a supportive group.
When people speak up for themselves, they need to be able to confidently define their personal issues and desires. The first step to becoming an effective self-advocate is to believe in yourself. This means you are aware of your strengths, know that you are worthwhile, and are willing to take good care of yourself.
Peer specialists who provide support and affirmation for their clients and help clients to become aware of their strengths are setting the foundation for self-advocacy. By role modeling a positive sense of self and sharing examples of their own successful self-advocacy, they are providing tools for their clients to achieve the same successes. Clients who have a strong sense of self-worth will be more able to ask for what they want and to protect themselves when others treat them badly.
Your peer specialist role also includes doing your best to help someone understand that we do not always get what we want, and we can still try. For example, you might help a person to inquire about a job that has been posted, but then have to provide support when he shares his sadness after the employer tells him that he is not qualified for the job. Teaching people to advocate includes helping them learn to cope with disappointment, rather than protecting them from it. In some situations, it means providing the emotional support that enables someone to persevere.
System advocacy usually involves getting government, business, schools, or some other large institution to correct an unfair or harmful situation affecting people in the community. The situation may be resolved through persuasion, by compromise, or through political or legal action. Here is what it is and what it is not.
- Advocacy is active promotion of a cause or principle.
- Advocacy involves actions that lead to a selected goal.
- Advocacy is one of many possible strategies, or ways to approach a problem.
- Advocacy can be used as part of a community initiative, nested in with other components.
- Advocacy is not direct service.
- Advocacy does not necessarily involve confrontation or conflict.
This type of advocacy is really about social action, which is the practice of taking action – usually as part of an organized group or community – to create positive change. Sometimes social action can lead to profound social change. For example, many changes have been brought about by the actions of advocates who have worked to move people off of welfare and out of poverty through affordable housing, child care and improved transportation options.
System advocacy is most often conducted by organizations, and in our case, primarily non-profit organizations in the behavioral health arena or other human service organizations, specialized advocacy organizations or charities. These groups bring a collective voice to their issues to foster public discussions about practices and policies that shape our local, state, and federal priorities. By working together, members of these groups educate and advocate. They can also exercise power collectively because of their numbers, using the media or their votes to persuade those in power to rethink their positions. Many national advocacy organizations exist to bring needed changes to issues for persons with substance use and mental health conditions. One of your workbook activities for this module involves researching a few prevailing organizations of this type.
Persons in the behavioral health field may engage in system level advocacy work in a wide variety of ways, including:
- a representative role (speaking for people)
- an accompanying role (speaking with people)
- an empowering role (enabling people to speak for themselves)
- a mediating role (facilitating communication between people)
- a modelling role (demonstrating practice to people and policy-makers)
- a negotiating role (bargaining with those in power)
- a networking role (building coalitions)
Most often, organized advocacy or lobbying is conducted by specific people within an organization. If you are employed by a human service or health care organization, it’s best to learn what policies or prohibitions they have related to systems or political advocacy.