Acronyms and jargon may serve as shorthand within the field, but when it comes to talking to the general public, you need real stories, not fancy terminology. While people in the field are naturally concerned about telling consumer stories, I don't think it's any coincidence that staff often hold back on telling their personal stories as well.
People get into the behavioral health field for a reason. Often there was an incident or a moment that led to the decision to "give back."
When asked, "Why do you work or volunteer at your organization?" the pat answers often come out first. "To give back." "To make a difference." "I needed a job." "I wanted to work with children." People's initial responses tend to be job-specific.
But scratching the surface with a few more probing questions usually reveals an indelible incident, sometimes unremembered, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which triggered the decision to work in this field in general.
What was that incident for you? Was it an experience with a friend, a loved one, witnessing an injustice, or a blend of several of these?
Think back to what had you choose the behavioral health field to begin with. After all, most people would think of it as depressing, hard, even thankless work. Yet for most of the individuals in the behavioral health and addiction groups we work with, they think of their work in this field as a "calling."
Do you feel "called" to do your work? If so, why? What was that incident or moment that you decided to dedicate yourself to this field?
I recall an older board member in one of our workshops who, when asked this question, was the first to offer to tell his story. Looking all "buttoned up" in his blue blazer and khakis, he stood up and shared in front of a large group of people what initially appeared to be the stereotypical story.
"I grew up in a healthy family with two solid parents. We were always taught to give back.
"In elementary school, my best friend, Billy, used to spend late afternoons playing at my house. As we got to know each other better, he began to confide in me about his older sister Barbara's mental illness.
"I knew it was a very important day when Billy finally invited me home to meet his family. Barbara was upstairs in her bedroom and never came out. The shroud of secrecy that surrounded Billy's family had kept Billy from ever inviting any of his buddies home after school. He feared the kids would tease him, his parents or his sister. His parents were as gentle and wonderful as could be, delighted that Billy had felt comfortable enough to invite me home.
"In the years that followed, Billy and I became even closer. He told me what it had meant to him that I would even come to his house and share the ‘secret' that his family held about having a daughter with mental illness.
"That left an indelible impression on me. Why would the family be hiding their daughter? Why would they think I wouldn't want to visit Billy's house? I knew in that moment that Billy's family's angst could just as easily have been my family. Barbara could have been my older sister. The stigma seemed so wrong to me. I vowed to myself to do work to remove that stigma so that other families like Billy's would not have to hide their daughter in a back bedroom, so that other kids like Billy wouldn't have to be embarrassed about their big sisters. That's why I'm involved as a board member today at Community Behavioral Healthcare. I know I'm doing the work I'm supposed to be doing."
Take a deeper look at your story. Write it down as succinctly and honestly as you can. Don't feel you must tell every detail to the public, but you should write out the full, real story for yourself. Then pare it down to its essence and be prepared, when asked what your organization does, to tell people why you work in this field, before telling them about the work of your organization.
In the long run, that's what people will remember most: your story and your deeper passion for the organization's mission.
I'd love to hear from you. Do you know your story?