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These Are the Qualities I Want to See More of in Health Advocacy

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What does it mean to be a health advocate? How do you become one? What makes a person qualified to do so? These are all valid questions and ones I hope that get answered for you very soon. But this is not that type of how-to column. Rather, I’d like to discuss the most important emotional and mental components that I believe make up the core of compelling advocacy work. 

Before we begin, you should know that I’m newer to the advocacy world. Like most, I started speaking out about my conditions (chronic daily migraine, bilateral vestibular loss) by being a longtime sufferer of them. There wasn’t a magic bullet or a secret society that I joined. I went through a medical trauma when I was 15, had my life drastically saved/altered by an IV antibiotic, have since had a migraine almost every day and wobble when I walk. It took me approximately 13 years to accept my truth and start speaking it.

First and foremost, I believe that being an advocate means that you have reached a point in your journey where you can stop apologizing for your illness. You don’t make excuses or continually say “sorry” for being different. You recognize that illness isn’t a choice and that by living your life as dictated by your diagnoses is merely an act of survival. You’re allowed to be sick or have a disability or be struggling with your mental health. And more importantly, you’re allowed to speak up about it.

The next component that I believe really grounds the best kind of advocacy work is a deep and nuanced sense of vulnerability. Advocates, in a way, are spokespeople for their conditions. They speak out in order to educate the public, while also providing a sense of security and community for those who aren’t able to use their voice (for whatever the reason may be). Vulnerability comes in many shapes and sizes. It isn’t wholly negative, nor is it covered in interstellar pixie dust. It is real, it is raw, it is the truth. But at the same time, I think that the right kind of vulnerability leaves a little something to the imagination. The advocacy work that I am drawn to doesn’t lay every single detail out on the table. It protects the heart of the person so bravely putting themselves on display so that they have a little left in the tank to fight the good fight that inspired their platform in the first place.

Compelling advocacy work also requires a genuine interest and skill for establishing a community. I think the difference between a good and a great advocate lies in how much dialogue they facilitate and foster. Why become an advocate if you don’t have an interest in speaking with those who are on a similar journey, right? Great advocates (and humans) should listen as much as they speak. This is how the best kind of empathy is cultivated and put into practice.

Next, I believe that understanding how (and when) to educate the general population about one’s specific conditions is paramount. The most passionate and effective advocates read the room. They either know how to tiptoe in with a soft and shapely anecdote or they dive right into their most harrowing hospital experiences. Changing the delivery of your message based on your audience gives an advocate the most precise bang for their buck. It also means that you are most effectively communicating the intended message to the target audience. Sometimes the best kind of advocacy is meaningful and best said with a subtle, “I hear you.”

In the end, being a compelling health advocate is no different than being a compelling human being. It requires thoughtfulness and an understanding that not everyone processes trauma, sickness, disability or disease in the exact same way. It requires flexibility and a gravy boat of patience. It is hard work but damn, it is the best kind of work to do. Let’s keep doing it.

I’m always interested in following and reading more from other advocates of any mental health or physical condition, so if you have a particular person whose work you love and admire, please give them a shout-out in the comment section below. 

Header image via fizkes/Getty Images.

Originally published: February 16, 2019
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