Behavioral Health Professionals as Community Advocates

Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

By Erica D. Marshall-Lee, Ph.D., Chanda Graves, Ph.D., ABPP, and Justin Williams, Ph.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates

Behavioral health professionals are uniquely positioned to leverage their understanding of human behavior to become powerful agents of change in their communities or in the communities in which they have a vested interest. Although they have some familiarity with community organizing and engagement, many behavioral health professionals are reluctant to engage directly as community advocates because they don’t know exactly what it means to be an advocate. or how community advocacy complements their existing professional roles. Therefore, it is often important to start with a better understanding of what community advocacy is and is not.

What is Community Advocacy?

Community advocacy describes an action or activity that supports and/or advances the public interests of a community. Typically, advocates have a vested interest in supporting community improvement or revitalization and often use their expertise to serve the community in a variety of ways (Wooten, 2013). Community advocates help ensure that the community is heard, protected and its interests promoted. They maintain an active role in helping communities identify and promote their own interests. Thus, Community Advocates embody what it means to defend the interests of the communities to which they belong and/or serve.

Although often aligned, advocacy, and by extension community advocacy, differs from similar concepts such as activism and social justice. This is partly because advocates work directly with change agents and those who influence them to inform and influence stakeholders and systems, while activists work primarily with parties who influence change agents. change for the purpose of challenging, persuading or even indicting a system towards change. In contrast, social justice promotes the common interests of all communities and social groups in a way that emphasizes the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion while addressing disparities and disadvantages. inequality. Thus, community advocates primarily engage in advocacy, but often also engage in forms of activism and social justice (APA Toolkit Taskforce, 2019).

How can I become a behavioral health professional?

Many of us have thought about this and felt that advocacy is too big and mysterious for us to do. For many of us, we already advocate in many ways without acknowledging or understanding that the activities in which we engage are advocacy.

Most behavioral health professionals think of advocacy as something that is done at the federal level and involves lobbying, meeting with legislators, writing policies, testifying in Congress, and so on. Yes, advocacy is all of these things and more. Many of us think we don’t know how to do this and many of us haven’t been trained to do it. Guess what? The skills we need to uphold at this level and others are already part of what we have learned in our training as behavioral health care clinicians. We are taught to communicate effectively, build relationships, collaborate and manage conflict, think scientifically and critically, solve problems and generate solutions, conduct research and analysis, and learn more about the company. issues and concerns.

The truth is that advocacy comes in all shapes and forms and can be done at the micro level with individual customers, at the meso level in the communities and neighborhoods in which consumers (and we) live, and at the public and governmental macro level. As mentioned earlier, some of us advocate for clients for insurance, housing, financial and food assistance and other access to care issues, while others may sign petitions, write OpEds or blogs. Becoming a community advocate isn’t as daunting as it sounds.

What are the benefits of community advocacy?

Community advocacy for behavioral health professionals has several benefits. Advocacy helps the voices of the communities in which we work and where our clients live are heard. Additionally, it can provide professionals with information, support and services to more effectively and holistically support our clients and their needs. Additionally, professionals can use their power and privilege within their agencies and organizations to help their clients (and/or families) have their voices heard and obtain needed supports and services.

In addition to the benefits for professionals, community advocacy has many benefits for clients: inclusion in decisions that affect them, learning about the processes of systems and organizations that impact them and their lives, getting answers to their questions, learn to advocate for themselves in the systems, and develop their voice and learn how to make them heard in areas where they need additional or equitable treatment or services. Additionally, when we engage in advocacy, we build muscle and experience in societal impact and addressing issues such as unfair laws and programs as well as creating change. Behavioral health professionals can affect and improve public health and human well-being, as well as call for increased funding for behavioral health.

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