Find Your Representatives!
House.gov provides a search by zip code: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative
Speaking with Legislators
Oftentimes, the most important legal tool we have is our own story. Check out our section below “Your Story: A Powerful Advocacy Tool”.
Here are some other tips for speaking with representatives…
Since your legislative meetings are generally less than ten minutes, you want to ensure that you have time to make your advocacy visits as effective as possible. When meeting with your legislators or members of their staff you do not want to read your lists or talking points verbatim. Below are some suggestions to ensure that your legislative meeting is as successful as possible:
Remember, however, you are all advocacy specialists in your own right, so follow your own instincts if you think it would be most effective.
- Assign a lead person and a time keeper in advance. The lead person should confirm the name and title of the staff person you are meeting with. Thank them for their time and exchange business cards so a follow up can take place. Hand them the blue folder. Ask how much time you have for this meeting and do not go any longer than the allotted time. Lead person should ask if the staff member is familiar with LH4MH. If not, be ready to give a brief summary of our mission…ie: “we are a grassroots mental health advocacy organization; we offer support, education, and advocacy for people with mental illness”. This should not take more than a minute.
- The lead person should introduce himself/herself and allow everyone else around the table to introduce themselves. (one person doing all the talking is boring.) As you go around the table, each person should briefly say which county they are from and (if they are comfortable with doing so) who is mentally ill in their family, what the diagnosis is, and how they are doing (ie: if they need housing, hospitalization, employment, better medications, etc.) This makes it personal and interesting. Do not take more than 1-2 minutes with this.
- Focus on the key points that make your case. Don’t forget to make known the importance of the issue to their constituency and the possible publicity and/or political effects of their decision (or make your case that this is more important than political gain, without insulting your rep!)
- Decide in advance who will address each item and do not spend more than a minute on each. When time is up, the lead person should ask the legislative representative if they have any questions and if there is anything we can do to help their member (this could be an opportunity to build a positive partnership). The lead person should then thank the staff person for their time (usually everybody shakes hands) and then everyone should leave as quickly and politely as possible since other groups are probably waiting to come in.
Follow up with a thank-you letter addressing specific items discussed if possible. GOOD LUCK!
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.
- Your experience 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 trailer—just 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.