Making advocacy accessible: 5 learnings from my first congressional briefing

If you’re like me, the idea of ​​attending a congressional briefing can be intimidating and confusing. Initially, I was expecting what might be seen on C-SPAN: walking into a large meeting room filled with elderly, influential government representatives questioning people while standing in front of a microphone. As mental health advocates, or future advocates, our voices matter and attendance at these types of forums is imperative to achieving change. Maybe, like you, you found the idea of ​​something so formal intimidating.

However, what I experienced was much less stoic. In fact, it was exactly the opposite of what I expected. They even provided snacks and soft drinks.

Briefing Basics

Congressional briefings are like mini briefings filled with people from all corners of the country who share a common interest or concern. The main goal is to provide information about a problem by detailing its prevalence and helping people understand what needs to change for the better. Once that information is provided, participants can explain how and why the proposed solution would benefit the greater good.

Recently, Mental Health America and our partners hosted a briefing for Congress to discuss the importance of peer support services and what is needed from Congress to expand access. You can check the recording here.. For someone new to mental health advocacy or wanting to get more involved on the legislative side, here are discoveries I made that might help you on your journey.

5 conclusions and advice

1. If you are looking for a solution to a systemic problem, you should provide information about why and how that problem affects the average citizen and offer solutions.

In the latest briefing, Mental Health America brought together a group of peer support services experts to discuss why new solutions are vital to their work and how others can participate. Among the panelists, one provided direct peer support services in underserved communities; the second received these services when he was young and has since dedicated his life to ensuring that other young people have the same access; the third works for a health insurance provider that reimburses peer support specialists, increasing access for many people in need; and the fourth panelist shared her experience with institutionalization and professionals who claimed that her diagnosis would prevent her from living a daily life. The four experts provided deep insights and living proof that peer support services are effective and should be physically and financially available across the country. The information they shared demonstrated to attendees how beneficial peer support services have been to the lives of those they serve and showed how easy it would be to implement more peer services across the country. As an organization led by voices of lived experience, these real-life accounts provided insight into the topic. By then providing a solution and advice on how that solution can be shaped and applied on a larger scale, policymakers are left with tangible mechanisms to work with.

2. Support from multiple groups and organizations is essential.

If you plan to ask Congress, or even your local or state legislator, for something, you’d better have broad support from multiple sources. With 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 6 young people By experiencing a mental health condition in a given year, mental health will affect everyone, either directly or indirectly, at some point in their lives. Having this knowledge shows that mental health care is a bipartisan issue, which has resulted in overwhelming support from both sides. That support is helpful when these requests are brought to Congress. In addition to bipartisan support, Mental Health America took this opportunity to bring together like-minded partners and collaborators to inform the briefing. Increasing the breadth and depth of information, along with diverse bodies of representation, strengthened our requests.

3. “Leave Behinds” provide critical information and summaries.

Congressional briefings tend to provide a lot of information in a short period, so it is reasonable to assume that some of that information may be overlooked or not retained. Staff, liaisons, and others present may need to relay what they heard to a congressman or other staff, and you want to make sure they get the vital information. The purpose of a leave-behind document, or one-pager, is to ensure that your audience understands the message and can refer to it once the briefing is over. In this particular briefing, we had six questions that included information about different acts, proposed bills, and calls to action, all mixed with powerful stories of lived experiences from our panelists. Providing attendees with a brief and concise summary of the focal points ensures that those with the power and motivation to act have the correct information to do so.

4. Invite appropriate speakers, organizations, and other attendees.

If you are hosting an information session or advocacy event, getting the word out to key people and organizations will go a long way to strengthening your message and improving the chances of applications being included in legislation. Since mental health is a concern for everyone, regardless of political affiliation or demographic profile, it stands to reason that most people want conditions to improve. At this information session, the guest list included over 70 organizations that wanted to learn more or shared our passion for peer support services. We also invited experts to share their lived experience: Tiara Springer-Love, mental health advocate from New York; Lauren Foster, behavioral health program director at Blue Cross Blue Shield, Minnesota; Vesper Moore, mental health advocate at Kiva Centers; and Dana Foglesong of the National Peer Services Association. By having a panel of experts from various corners of the mental health world, we could discuss the multiple barriers to implementation and potential solutions to improve access. The wide range of attendees improved our chances of disseminating that information to groups and organizations to gain even more support. This is crucial for goals such as increasing research funding and advocating for grants and support for community organizations that provide peer support services.

5. Congressional briefings are a great place to network and meet people with similar agendas.

If you attend a congressional briefing, it’s probably because you have a personal interest in the topic, along with the other attendees. Common interests make it the perfect opportunity to meet face to face with others who share your passion and can discuss solutions. A business card is a must if you plan to expand your list of professional contacts. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to introduce yourself to the panelists after the session. After all, those speakers are experts in their field and have experience in their area of ​​interest.

In the end, my terrifying perception of Congressional briefings on Capitol Hill was shattered, and I will attend more if I get the chance. I arrived feeling anxious and out of place, but left feeling supported and rejuvenated for being part of the solution. I also learned a lot despite being well versed in the topics. It helped me to hear stories of lived experiences and realize that other people care and want to improve mental health in our nation. Also, the snacks they provided were excellent. If you have the opportunity to attend a congressional, or even state government, briefing, take advantage of it.

Watch the recording of the Congressional briefing

Makalynn Powell is a youth and peer policy fellow at Mental Health America.

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