What is Advocacy?

By Sam Jackson 

It can seem odd that as an advocate one of the hardest things to do when you first meet with someone who is accessing an advocacy service is to explain what ‘advocacy’ actually is. In its simplest form it is ‘speaking up on behalf of someone’.  But what does this mean. We all have times when it is hard for us to explain to others what it is that we want. When you are in a difficult situation and the people who you need to speak to about it are seen as figures of authority (doctors, nurses, social workers) this can be even harder. When you are having problems with your mental health, or you have a learning difficulty, or dementia (just as examples), this can sometimes seem virtually impossible.

At times like this an advocate can be a lifeline. Someone who can take the time to talk with you about the problems you are having, what you see as the things that could happen to help, what help there may be out there and what entitlement you might have to access this help. And in talking these things through with an advocate they can help you work out what your wishes are, in the immediate difficult situation but also in improving your situation more generally. An advocate can provide the information you need, and explain it in a way that you can understand, so you can make an informed decision for yourself.

And when you have done this an advocate can help you contact, or contact on your behalf, the relevant people you will need to tell them what you want to happen. They can come with you to any meetings or appointments and either support you to tell them what you want or tell them for you.

When you write it down like that it would seem to be a simple thing to explain to people what your job as an advocate is. But when someone is meeting an advocate for the first time they are often in a desperate situation – perhaps it is the first time they have had a crisis with their mental health, the first time they have had to go to hospital. And often they have had bad experiences of trying to tell a professional how they feel and what they want to happen and been ignored, patronised, or told (either bluntly or more subtly) that their opinions don’t really matter.

As an advocate getting across to someone that your only purpose is to be on their side, to express their views, can be a challenge. Getting across that you are not there to judge them or the choices that they make is not as easy in practice as it might seem. For many people even those who love them dearly will be the ones telling them that they should not be doing the things they want to do. And there are whole systems in place which can seem as if they are designed to make life difficult, to make the things you would choose to do impossible.

An advocate cannot solve these problems – but having someone who is not giving their personal opinion or making judgements about you, but instead is sitting with you (sometimes literally in those difficult meetings) and helping you to express how you feel and what your wishes are can make a massive difference. They are there to make sure your voice is heard and that no decision is made about your life without your voice being heard.