- Community advocates help to ensure that the interests of the community are promoted.
- Some behavioral health professionals advocate for a variety of client concerns such as insurance, housing, financial, and food assistance.
- Behavioral health professionals can use their understanding of human behavior to become change agents in communities.
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 draw upon their understanding of human behavior to become powerful change agents in their communities or in communities in which they have a vested interest. Despite having some familiarity with community organizing and engagement, many behavioral health professionals are reluctant to engage directly as community advocates because they are not sure exactly what it means to be a community advocate or how community advocacy complements their existing professional roles. As a result, it is often important to begin by better understanding what community advocacy is and what it 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 stake in supporting the enhancement or revitalization of the community and often utilize their expertise to serve the community in various ways (Wooten, 2013). Community advocates help to ensure that the community is heard, protected, and its interests are promoted. They maintain an active role in assisting communities in identifying and promoting their own interests. Thus, community advocates embody what it means to advocate for the interests of the communities in which they belong and/or serve.
Despite often being aligned, advocacy, and by extension, community advocacy, differs from similar concepts such as activism and social justice. This is in part because advocates work directly with change agents and with those who influence them to inform and influence stakeholders and systems while activists primarily work with parties that influence change agents in an effort to challenge, persuade, or even indict a system towards change. In contrast, social justice promotes the common interests of all communities and social groups in a manner that underscores the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion while challenging disparities and inequities. Thus, community advocates primarily engage in advocacy but often engage in forms of activism and social justice as well (APA Toolkit Taskforce, 2019).
How can I become a behavioral health professional advocate?
Many of us have contemplated this question and felt that advocacy is too big and too mysterious for us to be able to perform. For many of us, we already advocate in a number of ways without acknowledging or comprehending that the activities we engage in are advocacy.
Most behavioral health professionals view advocacy as something that is done on a federal level and entails lobbying, meeting with legislators, writing policy, testifying to Congress, etc. Yes, advocacy is all of those things and more. Many of us think we do not know how to do this and many of us were not trained to do it. Guess what? The skills we need to advocate at this level and others are already part of what we were taught through our education as behavioral healthcare clinicians. We are taught how to communicate effectively, how to build relationships, how to collaborate and navigate conflict, how to think scientifically and critically, how to problem solve and generate solutions, how to conduct research and analyses, as well as how to learn about societal issues and concerns.
The truth is advocacy comes in all shapes and fashions and can be done at micro levels with individual clients, at the meso level in the communities and neighborhoods in which consumers (and we) live, and at the public, governmental macro level. As mentioned earlier, some of us advocate for clients for insurance purposes, housing, financial and food assistance, and other access to care concerns, while others may sign petitions, write OpEds, or blogs. Becoming a community advocate is not as daunting as it may feel.
What are the benefits of community advocacy?
There are several benefits to community advocacy for behavioral health professionals. Advocacy helps the voices of the communities in which we work and where our clients live to be heard. Additionally, it can provide professionals with information, support, and services to more effectively and holistically care for our clients and their needs. Furthermore, professionals can use their power and privilege within their agencies and organizations to help their clients (and/or their families) develop their voices and obtain needed supports and services.
In addition to benefits for professionals, community advocacy has many benefits for clients: inclusion in the decisions that matter to them, learning the processes of systems and organizations that impact them and their lives, having their questions answered, learning how to stand up for their rights in systems, and developing one’s voice and learning how to make it heard in areas in which they need additional or equitable treatment or services. Furthermore, when engaging in advocacy, we develop muscle and experience in societal impact and problem-solving such as inequitable laws and programs as well as creating change. Behavioral health professionals can affect and improve public health and human welfare as well as call for increased behavioral health funding.
American Psychological Association’s (APA) Toolkit Taskforce. (2019). Community Advocacy: A psychologist’s toolkit for state and local advocacy. Retrieved September 29, 2021, https://www.communitypsychology.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019_Com…
Wooten, R. (2013). Who are local community advocates and what role do they play in community development? Retrieved September 29, 2021, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/who_are_local_community_advocates_and_wha…