Six Tips on Campaigning for Social Change
by See Change Ambassador, Shari McDaid
What would it take to change Irish society so that everyone who had a mental health diagnosis could feel confident that they could pursue their dreams without fear of discrimination? How can you and I make a difference towards this vision?
As someone who has lived with a mental health difficulty since I was sixteen, I do have a deep desire to see anyone affected by a mental health condition live the full live they deserve. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with people to achieve a better society for people with mental health difficulties for more than twenty years. and I’d like to share with you six principles that I have learned so far:
Firstly, we need to put people with experience of a mental health difficulty at the heart of our campaigning. Everything in our campaigns should be led by people with lived experience of mental health, by the change they want to see. Family members and other supporters of people with lived experience have an important role too. Only by rooting everything we do in solidarity with people with lived experience will our campaigns have the authenticity and legitimacy to have impact. And only by having the priorities set by people with lived experience will we know that the direction we’re moving in is the right one.
While I was working at Ireland’s national coalition on mental health, Mental Health Reform, I sought to do this by ensuring that the issues we campaigned on were ones identified as important by our Experts by Experience Advisory Group, and making sure that the positions we took on those issues were always developed with this group. This meant that every time I was in front of a public official, I had the confidence that I was working towards what people with lived experience wanted.
Secondly, it is important to work together with others of like mind – nothing is changed in a sustainable way by one person working alone; in order to change the system, we need to work with others who share our goal. The number of people is not actually that important – what is important is that we share a common vision of the change we want to see, and are resourceful and creative in finding ways to have an impact.
Being part of the Green Ribbon campaign is one way to join a collective that is working towards mental health change. By participating in the Green Ribbon campaign, I can reach many more people and have much greater impact than if I tried to do this on my own.
Thirdly, be clear about who can make the change – Who has the power to make the decisions that will achieve your vision? Who are you trying to reach? Finding out the correct target for your action can save a lot of wasted effort. Perhaps it’s a Government Minister who can invest money, set up a programme or prepare legislation. Or it could be your local council members or an employers’ group. Or, as in the case of the Green Ribbon campaign, it could be anyone who doesn’t currently know how they can help to create a better society for people with mental health difficulties. By being clear on who you are trying to reach, you will be much more effective.
Fourth – Know that there are no enemies – only people who have not yet come on board. If you get it into your head that your target is the enemy that you must conquer, you immediately set up an oppositional, conflictual relationship in which they will want to defend their position. This makes progress much more difficult. Instead, focus on how achieving your vision can also help them to achieve their goals.
For example, I used to think that the Minister for Mental Health was the enemy who I had to convince. When I first met Minister Kathleen Lynch, I thought I had to convince her to do the right thing; I assumed that she was a barrier. Then I began to realise that she also was trying to improve things and struggling with her own challenges in doing so. This insight shifted my perspective and allowed me to understand and appreciate her challenges and seek solutions that would help her as well.
Fifth – Be patient and persistent. Accept that change is slow. You may not see the change in your lifetime, but you will feel better for having contributed to progress.
For more than twenty years, I have had the aspiration to see people’s rights vindicated when using inpatient mental health services. This aspiration has yet to be achieved, but through slow, persistent campaigning we are closer than we have ever been. We have a government-endorsed expert report that set out how improvements could be made to mental health law. We have draft legislation that has been shown to our Mental Health Commission, and the promise from this Government that they will publish draft legislation soon. With this draft legislation in the Oireachtas, we have the chance in the very near future to achieve real improvements in the law that protects people’s rights when they are in hospital. If that happens, it will have been worth the many years of effort.
Finally, one of the most important lessons I have learned is not to worry about whether or not my action is enough. Am I saying that right things to you now? Has the work I have done up until now been the right work? Have I listened enough? Or been courageous enough in the moments that called for courage?
I will never have the answers to these questions. But as someone who suffers from panic attacks, I never thought that I could be the CEO of a national campaigning coalition on mental health. I learned that the only thing I do have is the knowledge that I tried and gave the best I could on any given day, and that feels a lot better than never having tried at all. Be well and have hope.
If you are having a tough time at the moment and need to reach out for support, please contact any of the following