Become An Advocate
Communicating with Legislators
Communicating with your legislators is the best way to get your voice heard. You can communicate with your legislator in a letter, by making a phone call, or with a personal visit.
General Tips for Communicating with Your Legislators
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- Keep it brief. Whether in person or in a letter, state your purpose, give your point of view and request an action. Click here for tips for writing letters and making calls.
- Stay on point. Let them know what you want without confusing them. Here are some key messages important to DBSA.
- Share your personal story, but don’t be overly emotional. One personal story or one powerful experience can change a person’s mind or heart.
- Learn the names of legislative aides. You may not always get to work directly with your legislator so get to know his/her aides, they may be your best ally. Learn more about talking to congressional staff here.
- Visits make the biggest impression. Here are some tips on speaking with your legislator in person.
- Communicate before decisions are made. Be proactive in making a difference, once their vote is cast, there is little you can do. Keep the communication on-going. Don’t just contact them when there is a vote or to complain.
- Compliment them on a job well done, or to inform them of new or interesting information on issues important to you.
- Remember you represent others. As a mental health advocate you are representing the community as a whole to your legislator. Make sure you leave them with a positive impression.
- JUST DO IT! Something is better than nothing. Write a postcard, send an email, fax a personal story. Making contact is the most important step! Do what you can.
Get Involved in Advocacy
Becoming an active participant in politics is another great way to get your voice heard. Put your thinking cap on and figure out creative ways to spread the word. Writing letters, making call and visiting legislators are all great, but think outside the box and take your commitment to the next level.
Here are a few ideas:
- Support in other ways. If money is a problem but you still want to support the candidate, volunteer to stuff envelopes, make calls, distribute literature, anything you can do to spread the word.
- Form a committee. Find others who have the same passion! There’s always strength in numbers! Find others that have the same interests and views. Ask them to serve on your committee and assist you in outreach activities. If your members are not as knowledgeable as you are on the issues, train them.
- Arm your committee with the right tools. Give your members the tools they’ll need to implement the plan. Send legislative updates, detailed information about specific legislation and message points.
- Get to know others who support your cause. Find other organizations, individuals, and businesses that are supportive of mental health issues such as your local American Psychiatric Association local chapter, researchers at universities. Reach out to these groups to see if they will join you in implementing your plan.
- Host a get together. Conduct a Brown Bag Lunch for legislative staffers to educate them about your issues. You can also do a panel discussion or a “get to know each other” meeting.
- Use the media to get your message out. Follow stories in your local paper on mental health issues. Who is the reporter covering the story? Keep a log of reporters and what stories they have reported on. Communicate with them and use a personal story to hook them. Or write a letter to the editor talking about the legislation and why it should become a law.
These are just a few ideas, see how many other great ideas you can come up with. Most importantly, don’t get discouraged, it may take many attempts and different approaches to get your message out.
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Making Your Message Stand Out
To make your message stand out from the millions that arrive in Congress each year, do your homework.
Know your audience. Before communicating with or visiting your elected officials and their staff, you should know as much as possible about who you are visiting. Checking the legislator’s congressional and campaign websites will provide a broad array of important information about the official, their committee/subcommittee assignments, and issue interests. Many officials send out emails to their constituents who wish to stay informed of their activities. Knowing whether an official is a long-time supporter of mental health issues, a strong fiscal and social conservative, or interested in senior citizen and veterans issues, for example, will help you determine how best to present the issues you will discuss.
Know your issues. Know the arguments for, and against, the issues you want to discuss. Read appropriate background information on any issue you will be talking about and be able to answer questions or know how to get the answers to any questions that are raised.
Prepare. This toolkit contains guidelines for conducting a meeting with an elected official or their staff, communicating effectively on an issue, and other topics. Keep this Peer Advocacy Training Toolkit for future reference and as a resource to sharpen your skills as your relationship and level of involvement grows.
Most importantly, don’t underestimate the impact that you can have if you approach communication and developing meaningful relationships with your elected officials and their staff in a thoughtful and ongoing manner!
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Meeting with Your Members of Congress
There is no substitute for the opportunity to communicate face-to-face with your legislators. They get to hear your story, unfiltered and direct from you, and gain a sense of your dedication to issues important to you and others within your community. When you’re ready to set up a meeting with your member of Congress, keep the following suggestions in mind.
Planning for you Meeting:
- Meet only with your own elected officials or those whose constituents you serve.
- Bring another spokesperson with you if possible and let the legislator’s office know who will be coming with you and why.
- Call in as far in advance as possible to schedule the meeting.
- Don’t hesitate to meet with staff if the elected official is unavailable.
- Show up ten minutes early. Never be late yourself, but be understanding if the legislator or staff are late.
- Do your homework: find out what committees the member serves on and whether they’ve supported your issues in the past.
Tips for your presentation:
- Always address your legislator as "senator," "congressman," or "congresswoman," even if you already know them.
- Focus on one issue per meeting and assume you will have ten minutes to make your case.
- Don’t forget to ask for something concrete! For example, "please sign on as a co-sponsor to HR 1" is better than "please support prevention policies."
- Tell them a little about yourself and your organization.
- Leave them brief information on your organization and the issues you are discussing. One-pagers with bullet points are best—staff don’t have time to peruse long handouts.
- Suggest a visit to an upcoming educational session so they can see firsthand what you are all about.
- Thank them for their time and ask what you can do for them.
After your meeting:
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- Always send a brief thank you letter within a day or two of your meeting.
- NEVER give campaign contributions in their office—it’s illegal. (Donating to a legislative campaign as a private citizen is perfectly acceptable at a fundraiser, online, or by mailing to their campaign office.)
Building Meaningful Relationships
The best time to get to know your legislators is back home, when they are less distracted by the business of Congress. You should make every effort to visit your senator or representative to get to know them better and educate them about mental health issues when they are home during a congressional recess. If your elected representatives know you as a voter, constituent, friend, and supporter, they are likely to be more responsive to you than to those who have not developed that relationship and who write or call only when they are in need.
Increasing your degree of influence with your legislators is easier than you think! Here are ten ways to get to know your members of Congress and their staff better:
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- Invite them to your office or facility, if you have one, for a site visit. A site visit allows them to get a first-hand understanding of the work you do and how it matters to the people you serve. It is also an opportunity for them to speak directly with your staff or clients and hear their compelling stories. You may also wish to invite them to an upcoming educational session or other event your organization is hosting.
- Attend in-district events, such as town hall meetings. These types of meetings are a great way to bring your issues to their attention and speak with them personally.
- Establish yourself as a helpful expert that their staff can turn to when they have questions about an issue. Provide useful, balanced information that helps inform staff about the issue and establishes you as a person they can turn to when they need to know more.
- Stay in touch. Don’t wait until you need something from your legislators to communicate with them. Was your organization featured in a recent news story? Forward it to the health LA. Did a new report highlight how a particular policy might affect your community? Let staff know. Being in periodic contact throughout the year—especially when you’re not asking for anything—helps build relationships.
- As a private citizen, contribute to and/or volunteer for campaigns of your choosing. This shows legislators that you support the work they’re doing in Washington and gives you additional opportunities for interaction and relationship building. (Keep in mind that nonprofits are bound by different rules than individuals when it comes to making campaign contributions. Be careful to only contribute from your own finances in your role as a private citizen, not as an official representative of your chapter.)
- Help generate positive media attention when legislators visit your organization by working with them and their staff to develop and submit a press release with photos.
- Help legislators when their constituents have a behavioral health related issue by being available to answer any questions they or their staff might have.
- If you wish to personally host a fundraiser, work with the legislator’s campaign staff—not their Senate or House staff—to confirm a date and location, invitation list, and other details. Remember that if you are hosting a fundraiser, it must be in your role as a private citizen, not as a representative of your chapter.
- Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper mentioning your legislator when he or she supports or otherwise advances your issues in the Congress.
- Say thank you. Members of Congress and their staff are constantly bombarded by requests and demands, often couched in less-than-polite terms. In fact, fewer than 5% of written communications to Congress are to thank members for their work. Showing appreciation for their position or vote on a particular issue will make your message stand out.
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