On a personal note: Why I became a behavioral health advocate
As the National Council’s Hill Day approaches, we’ve been posting about our great speaker line-up and the important behavioral health legislation that you’ll be talking about with your Members of Congress.
But I wanted to take a moment to reflect on why advocacy is important – and in particular, to tell you about a moment that shaped me.
It was 1985, and I had just moved to Washington, DC for college. During that first winter, I started to volunteer 2 nights a week at an emergency shelter for homeless women. Washington, like many cities, was in the midst of a homelessness epidemic, and many of these shelters were opening around the country.
I was initially struck by the fact that almost all of the women who were sleeping in our building were exhibiting symptoms of psychosis, and more remarkably, none of them were connected to a routine source of psychiatric care. This was not for a lack of trying. The shelter employed two full-time social workers who tried their best to get the residents into medical care – both psychiatric and primary – as well as into more stable housing.
It was a trip with one of the residents to the DC office of housing that propelled me into advocacy. There was probably nothing special about the encounter: a long wait in an over-crowded waiting room filled with families in need of a place to sleep, followed by an impersonal and rushed encounter with a staff person who made it clear that there was little hope because the waiting list was just too long already.
This frustrating experience was repeated time and again with our other residents.
And for me, it was compounded by two family tragedies. Both of my godmother’s children suffered from serious mental illness and both died in their twenties, one by suicide.
What is most terrible is that these family tragedies and the daily struggles of the homeless women I worked with are not unique. Thousands of Americans all around the country have similar experiences every day, experiences that are fueled by public ignorance about behavioral health disorders, and exacerbated by lack of access to necessary care and support.
For me, advocacy is the antidote to these problems. It helps raise awareness about the realities of these illnesses – that they are real, common and treatable – and that recovery is possible. Most importantly, it helps our lawmakers realize that modest investments in high quality services can have a tremendous impact.
That is why I need you to join me – and hundreds of others from across the country – at Hill Day 2013. United, we’ll advocate for policies that expand Americans’ access to treatment and funding for programs that reduce stigma and discrimination. Our combined voices are so much stronger than any one of us alone. Together, we can and will make a difference!