Heartland Human Services

Self-Advocacy and Assertive Communication
By Kerrie Habing, Substance Abuse Counselor

A big part of substance abuse treatment, aside from sobriety, is the goal that a client will be able to carry these learned skills throughout the rest of their sobriety. Teaching self-advocacy provides a client with life-long healthy decision making skills. This means that clients are always learning how to make good decisions for themselves instead of simply following the direction of the therapist.

Without self-advocacy, treatment then promotes an unhealthy idea that others will always be there to fix a problem for them. Teaching a client self-advocacy allows them to take responsibility for the decisions they will make for the rest of their lives outside of treatment. They now own the problem instead of turning it over to someone else to fix.

Going through the emotions of making a decision and accepting consequences makes the behavior less likely in future situations. In therapy, clients are guided through these emotions and decisions in a safe, healthy environment that does not include the influence of peers, drugs, alcohol, or other negative influences. In this structured environment, clients learn the skills that they can apply to sobriety and even other areas of daily life. They are learning to self-advocate.

This topic also facilitates an opportunity to discuss assertive behaviors. This requires a certain level of self-advocacy, or being able to identify one’s needs and a desire to communicate those needs. Assertiveness forces a client to identify their own needs without others telling them what to want or feel. Before acting or communicating assertively, a client must first identify the desired outcome of their actions. It is important to remember that being assertive does not mean being rude or demanding. It is simply a way to ask directly for a specific need to be met without making the client’s need seem like an option. A client identifying their own need and seeking an answer to that need is self-advocacy. Communicating that need in a way that is not rude, demanding, negative, or apologetic is assertiveness. Here, ‘I’ statements are a helpful tool to practice in treatment (i.e. “I am not prepared to take on extra tasks at this time,” or “I am not willing to give up my sobriety by drinking.”) Role playing may also be beneficial to help the client prepare to be assertive. Discussing follow-up responses could prepare the client should they be met with resistance include knowing what to do when met with ‘no’ or being able to communicate why their request is important to them or their recovery. For example, ending a dangerous relationship with someone who enables a client to use drugs requires an assertive approach. Preparing a client for this interaction during treatment can allow them to feel empowered and hopeful about their sober future.

These are key components of establishing and maintaining a sober, healthy lifestyle after treatment without the influence of drugs and alcohol. A client who is able to advocate for his/her own needs has higher self-esteem, can form better, healthy relationships, and is more respected among his/her peers. Other key components that cannot be ignored include engagement in an appropriate level of treatment, establishing and maintaining a healthy support system (including AA and NA group attendance), and a value of living a sober lifestyle.

Community resources are available. You’re not alone, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s only a phone call away. To be assessed for treatment, contact Heartland Human Services at (217) 347.7179.


Psychologists advise those who have feelings of depression lasting more than two weeks to seek professional advice.  If you or a loved one are experiencing  any symptoms of depression, contact Heartland Human Services at 217-347-7179 or take a free screening at www.heartlandhs.org