Every September I look forward to the annual Hill Day event organized by the National Council for Behavioral Health (NCBH). NCBH is a non-profit organization representing healthcare organizations and providers across the nation with a mission of advocating for policies that ensure people who have mental health and substance use disorders have access to comprehensive, evidence-based health care services. Every year NCBH hosts a free two-day advocacy event that includes one day of advocacy training, as well as speakers such as MSNBC political analyst Nicole Wallace. On day two, we ‘storm the Hill’; meeting with our Senators and Members of Congress and putting our advocacy skills to test. Hundreds of people, including providers, consumers, and allies, from across the country attend. This year for the first time, I served as the Virginia State Captain for the NCBH Hill Day. In this role I organized over 150 attendees from Virginia and organized meetings with each state Representative.
Our storm-the-Hill day was a great success. Between 5-20 people met with every single Virginia Representative (both Senators and all 11 Congresswomen and Congressmen). My personal highlight of the day was meeting with Rep. Denver Riggleman, a Republican Congressman from Virginia’s 5th district. We spoke to Rep. Riggleman’s staff about the Mental Health Access Improvement of Act of 2019 (H.R. 945), explaining that Medicare beneficiaries in the 5th district, a rural area of Virginia, would benefit from this bill as it would increase access to services by adding LMFTs and LPCs as eligible Medicare providers. Half-way through our meeting, Rep. Riggleman was able to join us and asked to hear about our experiences. We explained the issue and made our ask (support H.R. 945). Rep. Riggleman graciously asked questions and agreed that access to mental health services is a top healthcare priority. Recently, Rep. Riggleman announced that he is co-sponsoring H.R. 945 – a huge win for MFTs, LPCs, and Medicare beneficiaries alike. It is meetings like this that, no matter how brief, can make a huge difference in building bipartisan support to ensure that those with behavioral health needs have access to comprehensive healthcare.
So, what does it take to get involved with advocacy in this way? Whenever I am asked this question, I find that a major misconception is that you need formal training and lots of experience in order to meet with our elected officials and effectively advocate for mental health and substance use legislation. It certainly can be intimidating to meet with elected officials – they have busy schedules and important jobs. Start by giving yourself a refresher in the structure of our government, who your elected officials are and their priorities, and educate yourself about current and pending legislation that impacts both the profession and consumers. Visit AAMFT’s Family TEAM website for updates and join your state Family TEAM (it’s free!) Listen to your local and national news and political podcasts. Take stock of your perspectives and what stance you might take on particular issues. Start small and scaffold your experiences if you can. Sit-in on advocacy meetings before initiating your own, join Family TEAM and maybe one day become the Family TEAM leader of your state (that’s how I did it). Attend the National Council Hill Day, and the following year volunteer as a State Captain. My colleagues and I refer to this process as self-of-the-advocate work and we argue that inherent to being a systemic therapist is public participation in macrosystem processes that ultimately impact the profession and our clients (Goodman, Morgan, Hodges, & Caldwell, 2018). As MFTs, we are experts in systemic thinking and action – why not take those skills outside the therapy office and into our capitol buildings?
Virginia Family TEAM Leader