Civic Activity

photo_9Community inclusion focuses on insuring that individuals with psychiatric disabilities have the same opportunities in life as everyone else, and this includes supporting people not only in meeting their most immediate and personal needs – a decent home, a good job, and a few friends – but also as they seek to have an impact on the world around them.  Helping individuals to join civic groups – to support a neighborhood theater or to volunteer in a local soup kitchen or to help clean up a local park – can provide people who are really isolated from their communities with a ‘social network and a ‘sense of community’ they might not otherwise experience.

Colombo (see the citation below, from 2001) says that effective social networks are essential for the emotional and practical health of individuals, and that strong social networks are often characterized by “a willingness of members of the community to reciprocate in their supports for one another as part of a stable structure, and in which there are not only shared values but also joint participation in shaping the community.”  It is this “joint participation in shaping the community” that is at the core of civic engagement.

Civic engagement offers people with serious mental illnesses an opportunity to help shape their world, sometimes with regard to their own most immediate needs but more often out of a pressing concern for their neighborhood, their friends and families, or their still broader concern for the nation. Community inclusion advocates have suggested several reasons for assisting people with psychiatric disabilities to become more engaged in civic life:

  • Self-Efficacy: many feel that the emotional stability of those with serious mental illnesses are improved when they have a growing sense of mastery and efficacy, and engagement in civic life provides one important avenue for having an impact and gaining a sense of their ability to be effective in their interactions;
  • Social Integration: others believe that joining civic associations and advocacy groups provides an opportunity for people to make new friends and broaden their social support networks through engagement with people without disabilities with whom they share common concerns; and
  • Personal Meaning: still others believe that individuals  with serious mental illnesses, like everyone else, have a range of deeply held beliefs (about the environment, community development, the welfare of children, gun control, etc.) and that when they act on these beliefs, in concert with others, they find a way to add meaning to their lives.

For many people, of course, engagement in civic activity results from a very personal mix of these motivations:  for people with psychiatric disabilities, however, a strong motivation may not be enough.  Many consumers may need a mix of services and supports from mental health providers – both peer advocates and more traditional professional workers – to be able to take on the practical and emotional challenges of civic activity.  Here, we discuss three arenas of civic activity:  public issues;  mental health advocacy; and nonprofit supports.

Public Policy

It should not be surprising (although it frequently is) that many people with serious psychiatric disabilities have civic concerns completely unrelated to their psychiatric status. Like other citizens, they may have vibrant views on the environment, gun control, the right to life, historic preservation, local cultural organizations, healthcare, etc., and they may want to take action (either as individuals or as part of an organized national or grassroots campaign) to participate in shaping their community.

More can be done by both consumer-run and traditional community mental health agencies to link people to civic-minded groups in their individual areas of interest.  Sometimes simply helping a consumer to identify their interest, a corresponding community group, and a way to make contact will be enough.   Often, however, the consumer may want a staff person to contact the community group ahead of time to smooth the way, or accompany the client in their first (or second or more) interaction with the group, or simply serve as someone to whom they can ‘report back’ as they get used to the new work of civic engagement in which they have landed.  This is a role that Certified Peer Specialists can plan, and other professionals as well.  All of this can occasional take a good deal of time, but it’s often easy to begin:

  • United Way agencies in most communities can provide both a list of nonprofit agencies and organizations, as well as information on volunteering and civic activity that provide opportunities for people to consider;
  • The internet provides a major resource for people to explore their areas of interest and identify organizations, people and events. One such website (http://www.idealist.org) provides a nationally-based resource that links people to nonprofit organizations and activities in specific communities in their areas of interest, as well as to specific volunteer and paid job opportunities.
  • Local political parties often welcome volunteers and provide opportunities for people to be active in both the general political arena and around specific public policy issues, and can be accessed through calls to local representatives, and local neighborhood newspapers often provide a comprehensive listing of what’s going on in the neighborhood that consumers can use as an initial guide both the what interests them and what is available for them.

Mental Health Advocacy

People with psychiatric disabilities still face remarkable social and legal barriers – to getting adequate services, to having equal access to homes and jobs and social opportunities, or even to volunteering.  A wide range of organizations have emerged over the past few years that provide opportunities for those with psychiatric disabilities to play an active role in reshaping the way in which services and systems and the general public respond to mental health issues. There are several key resources for those interested in becoming more active in the field:

  • Mental Health Associations (http://www.nmha.org), in most communities, can often be helpful to individuals with psychiatric disabilities who are interested, at local and state levels, in becoming more active in addressing these issues;
  • Self-help and family organizations (http://www.mhselfhelp.org or http://www.nami.org) can provide support as well, as can Centers for Independent Living and other local legal advocacy organizations; and
  • The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law (http://www.bazelon.org) provides updates on current legislation on the rights of people with mental illnesses, as well as the status of current legislative initiatives, web linkages to a wide range of other mental health advocacy sites, and advice on legal actions that can be taken by individuals.

Nonprofit Supports

Nonprofit agencies – both in the community mental health field and in other areas of interest -often have strong public policy interests, and both staff and program participants want to have a voice in legislative, regulatory, or funding decisions that effect nonprofits and the people they serve. Unfortunately, many nonprofit leaders and their program participants believe that the public funding an agency receives severely restricts their rights to raise their voices in public discussions on public policy: this is not the case. A number of organizations can be helpful to staff and clients (in both ‘consumer run’ and traditional nonprofits) in understanding their rights in these public policy debates:

  • Charity Lobbying in the Public Interest (http://independentsector.org/clpi/index.html) is the best known of the public interest groups in this area, with a wide range of publications on the “do’s and don’ts” of nonprofit lobbying;
  • How and Why to Influence Public Policy: An Action Guide for Community Organizations: is available from the Center for Community Change (http://www.communitychange.org) and provides an excellent manual for impacting public policy; and
  • The Nonprofit Lobbying Guide (http://www.clpi.org/toc.html) is an excellent book from Independent Sector, and offers great advice on how to lobby effectively within the federal regulations that are more flexible with regard to nonprofit lobbying than most believe.

Civic Activity Resources

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Colombo, M., Mosso, C. and De Piccoli, N. (2001) Sense of Community and Participation in Urban Contexts. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 11, 457-464.