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How to be an advocate

On July 8, 2020 the government of Manitoba announced an additional $1.1 million to fight Eating Disorders in the province. The funding will help reduce wait times for intensive treatment in Manitoba and ensure that more people with Eating Disorders in the province are able to access treatment closer to home.

This is a big win for Elaine Stevenson, who has been advocating for better treatment for Eating Disorders in Manitoba for the past 30 years. She began her career as an advocate when her daughter Alyssa was diagnosed with an Eating Disorder at only 12 years old. “It was a deeply personal need to find Eating Disorder treatment in Manitoba for our daughter,” she says. “And after talking to some parents it quickly became evident to me that the need was much much wider and stronger than just our own individual needs as a family.”

Stevenson has played an integral role in achieving several other big wins for Eating Disorder treatment in Manitoba, including the creation of the Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders Service at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg in 2001, and the Provincial Eating Disorder Prevention and Recovery Program at the Women’s Health Clinic in Winnipeg in 2009. She was one of the founding members of the Eating Disorders Association of Manitoba and she served as their Vice President for seven years before she left to start the Alyssa Stevenson Eating Disorder Memorial Trust in memory of Alyssa who lost her battle with her Eating Disorder in 2002. “My husband and I really wanted to just concentrate on advocacy,” she says.

With a long career in advocacy under her belt Stevenson has a lot to share about how to advocate and raise awareness for Eating Disorders in Canada. Here are some of her key tips for being a sustainable and successful advocate.

Educate yourself  

Stevenson says the first step to becoming and advocate is to get educated. Stevenson had lots of first hand experience with Eating Disorders because of Alyssa, but has also relied heavily on the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) over the years to provide her with up to date information and statistics that she could use in letters and bring to meetings with elected officials. “If I asked for pertinent statistical information to back me up on a certain cause they were fabulous,” she says. She also makes an effort to keep on top of the news, current research and what it going on in Eating Disorder treatment across the country. “It’s keeping abreast of what’s happening and when it’s pertinent and it’s information that I can use I am going to take that to the key decision makers,” she says.

Create alliances

According to Stevenson one of the most important things to do if you want to be successful as an advocate is to align yourself with like-minded organizations and people. For Stevenson that was other Eating Disorder organizations like NIED, FEAST and The Looking Glass Foundation; but also, other groups and people that were supportive of women’s causes like the Provincial Council of Women and various cabinet ministers. She also made a point to get to know some of the Eating Disorder program coordinators and organizers in both Manitoba and the other provinces to get their perspective on things. “It’s so important to extend yourself,” she says. “I don’t have all the answers.”

Stevenson also loves to celebrate the wins of other Eating Disorder groups and organizations across the county. She was even in Toronto to support NIED when they announced the National Eating Disorder Strategy last year. “It’s that respect for what they’re doing and respect for what I’m doing,” she says. “You get all these people together across the country and what a powerful voice.”

Figure out who to talk to

Stevenson says that while it is important to get in front of ministers of health both provincially and federally, there are also other people that need to be on your radar. For her it’s getting her message across to senior healthcare staff who are the ones making recommendations to the ministers. “It’s important to make contact with the minister to establish yourself as an advocate for what your needs are,” she says. “But it’s also good to follow up with the key senior staff that are in charge of mental health and addictions in those departments.”

Have a vision

Once you have figured out who you want to get in front of Stevenson says it is important to be targeted with your message. “Don’t be all over the place,” she says. “If you keep coming every time with a different message they are not going to take you seriously.” One of her key messages has been how unacceptable and dangerous long wait lists for treatment are in Manitoba. Consistent messaging played a key role in the government’s most recent funding announcement which will cut wait times for outpatient treatment in Winnipeg from months to weeks.

Be persistent

Stevenson says that as an advocate you need to have a lot of patience but also persistence. She says she is constantly pushing to get her cards in the game. “You’re competing with so many other causes,” she says. “You’ve got to do whatever you can so that they don’t forget about you.”  Getting to know local media can be one way that can help you remain relevant, especially if you are giving them interesting things to talk about. However, Stevenson warns about being too pushy. “Be respectful because if you’re always just bothering them, then they’re not going to think it’s really newsworthy,” she says.

Speak up

Stevenson says that as an advocate it is important to speak up if there is something that is detrimental to your cause, especially in the media. She says she has written many letters to the editor expressing her opinions about what look like well researched news articles but are really ads promoting a certain diet or weight loss. “As an advocate I feel very strongly about speaking up about that kind of stuff,” she says. “There’s a plethora of information out there that is not healthy, inaccurate and potentially very dangerous.”

Take care of yourself

Being an advocate can be exhausting and Stevenson says it is extremely important to recognize when you are getting burnt out. It is not uncommon to feel inadequate and like you aren’t doing enough, especially if it seems like no one is listening. “Sometimes you just have to put the computer down, don’t answer the phone and take time for yourself,” she says. “Renew, relax and just take care of yourself because your own mental health is so important.”

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