In the last year, I have become an unintentional advocate for marriage and family therapy. I’m not even sure how it happened, other than I’m absolutely, so over the denigration and subjugation of mental health and mental health services. In my frustration, I decided the pen is mightier than the sword (plus, swords aren’t allowed in my house), and I put my frustration to paper. I also started talking more about advocacy with my students and supervisees. I discovered these fabulous new professionals were craving knowledge about what was happening in the field, in the mental health landscape, in policy. And, they were determined to know “how can I get involved.” This advocacy tip sheet is a collection of ideas I’ve shared, and co-created, with this next generation of family therapists:
- Remember The Ethics! Not quite as catchy, or famous, as Remember the Alamo, but I’m newly Texan and it seems appropriate. In terms of MFT advocacy, we have a responsibility to serve our clients, and our communities, by speaking out against mental health misinformation, stigma, oppression. We have an ethical duty to advocate for our clients’ best interests, their mental health care needs, and therefore, our ability to serve these needs through training, licensure, and insurance coverage. We know more about families and the field of mental health than most, and we have an obligation to use this knowledge and share it with our communities, the public, and with policy-makers.
- Do not pass go. Feeling all advocacy-ish? Excellent. Stay right where you are. And get informed. In order to understand the broader systemic movements affecting our clients and our field, we must know and understand regional laws, policies, and political influences. The latter because it should shape how you couch your arguments (see Know their Love Language, below). AAMFT has dedicated advocacy staff who can help channel your energy into strategic initiatives.
- Know their love language. If we come at our clients harshly, too directly, with new ideas that are too unusual, they reject us. Understandably. So, learn how to couch your advocacy efforts in terms that are palatable, simple, direct, and match the interests of the person you hope to educate. Research their prior initiatives and explicit priorities. Then reshape what you’re advocating for to fit within their lens. Develop an elevator speech and practice with colleagues.
- Show up. Care about your clients, your community, anyone who needs mental health care? Then you must acknowledge advocacy is intimidating and overwhelming – and then, approach it, one step at a time. AAMFT staff is there to help guide you.
- One stone. Integrate advocacy work into the work you’re already doing. Two birds, as they say. Make “learn about advocacy” a supervision goal. Write a blog post for AAMFT (tips for that, here) or an OpEd for a local (or national!) news source. Help your advocacy message to go viral by literally putting the word out. It’s not a “peer reviewed research article” – but demonstrating you’re involved in service to the profession is important too, and this is a great way to get your feet wet.
- (Social) Network. We’re systems people. This one is easy. Find other people who are interested in advocacy and support each other. Learn about their efforts, share what you care about. Find mentors who are a bit further along in advocacy.Get involved in social networking. Not just Facebook! Get on Twitter – it’s a simple, effective way to learn about regional (and federal) power players and advocacy groups. Find who’s advocating on the behalf of MFTs or mental health. Learn about the work they’re doing, their initiatives and priorities, and whether you can volunteer to help. And, donate so they’re able to continue the good work (try starting with AAMFT Practice Protection Fund).
- Cultivate your empathy. This requires self-care, as well as a focus on learning about other people’s lived experiences. We need to continually open ourselves to caring about others – it makes for more powerful, passionate advocacy efforts. But, in order to do that, we need to be well ourselves. Commit to taking care of yourself in order to commit to empathizing with others. Then, commit to advocating for family therapists and all the people who benefit from our empathy superpowers.
Anti-diffusion of responsibility. We’re busy. We’re tired. We work for little pay (or, less than we should). This doesn’t change whether you are a student, new professional, or master family therapist. Well, hopefully the pay changes. But, if we stand by and do nothing, assuming these policies don’t affect us, or there are other people out there fighting the good fight – there will be no one left to fight for us, or the families we serve. Pour the passion you feel for meeting your clients’ needs into contributing to a better society and being responsible for the profession. Choose to use your empathy superpowers for good.
Sarah Woods, PhD, LMFT-Supervisor is an Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator of the Family Therapy Program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas. She specializes in medical family therapy and researches connections between family relationships and health, especially for underserved populations. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter at @swoodsieb.
Have your own tips about how to get started in advocacy? Please share!