ADVOCACY—Terminable and interminable: a place for psychology in the advocate’s toolkit

by Ivan Molloy


In speaking to fellow advocates I have sometimes heard advocacy characterised as a battle for resources. Perhaps then I can say that I have served two tours of duty in this battle, firstly as Mental Health Advocate for County Westmeath and more recently as the Disability Advocate for County Offaly.

Having only recently concluded my second spell as an advocate—and still somewhat reeling from the particular demands of this role—I feel I am in a position to confirm just how apt an analogy for advocacy is the battlefield, and perhaps never more so than in today’s economic conditions. Certainly in the arena of resource allocation, emotions run high, frustration is keenly felt and (for anyone placed in the position of having to advocate for others) the demand for results is positively palpable.

I’m sure that some advocates reading this will be able to relate to a mild sense of dread that tends to be triggered each time the work-phone rings, registering by its jingle some new, as yet unarticulated, demand that awaits on the other end of the line.

This is a demand which, as caseloads grow and purse-strings tighten, can reach an ever-intensifying pitch. And it is this incessant ‘demand’, the hallmark of advocacy, that elicits the patented advocacy motto of consolation—so often reiterated between advocates—‘remember, there’s only so much you can do.’ Well intentioned though these words are, they serve as cold comfort to an advocate attempting to balance the limitless expectations of a distressed client with the very limited influence he or she can exert over social policy makers.

But there is another insight pertaining to this ‘demand’ that tends to be such a prominent feature of advocacy work, which may potentially be a more practical source of consolation to the beleaguered advocate. The insight I’m thinking of is one borrowed from psychology and, in particular, from the theoretical position put forward by French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan. Lacan was very interested in the role played by ‘demand’ in human social relations. He differentiated between three distinct modes according to which human appetites can be categorised. To designate the first and most immediate of these categories Lacan used the term ‘needs’, referring to the material conditions required to sustain life; we ‘need’ nutrition, warmth, shelter, etc. There is nothing too mysterious about this and certainly it is easy to see how this category pertains to the work of an advocate. Indeed, it might at first be difficult to imagine what aspect of advocacy case work could not be said to fall within the category of a client’s ‘needs’. But Lacan insists on two further categories that can be differentiated out from our most elementary needs. These categories he terms ‘demand’ and ‘desire’.

While it is impossible in this short article to elaborate the full intricacies and implications of Lacan’s theory of desires, perhaps the salient point for our purposes is that, contained within the ‘demand’, which can be defined as the articulation of a ‘need’, there is always also to be found a request for approval, affirmation, acknowledgment or love. In other words, while a person’s needs may be very real, the demand that these needs be met always masks a deeper emotional need. Psychoanalysis has shown us that, while this dynamic is a feature of all human interaction, there are people for whom the demand I have described utterly eclipses the need which it would profess to be an articulation of. In such cases, it is the demand for emotional affirmation that is the driving force behind the articulation, although, interestingly, some material need or other can always be found on which to hang the emotional demand.

This might sound highly speculative, not to say a little unkind to someone who, after all, is declaring that they are in need of help. But to complete Lacan’s argument for the three categories of appetite, there is a good reason why demand and need do not always correspond.

The reason for this discordance rests on Lacan’s elaboration of the third category of human appetite: desire. In point of fact, it is the discordance itself that gives rise to what Lacan terms ‘desire’. While the particular ‘need’ articulated in the ‘demand’ may well be satisfied, the underlying craving for love or recognition is insatiable and hence persists as a leftover- It is this leftover that constitutes ‘desire’, the limitless nature of which ensuring that, for someone deeply compelled by a quest for love, there will always be a fresh ‘need’ onto which ‘desire’ can be displaced.

In order to appreciate what relevance all of this might have to the work of an advocate, one need only bring to mind the sort of interminable case that I believe to be a component of just about every advocacy caseload in the country. Speak to any advocate and they will admit that tucked in among all their other cases are a few clients who have been on the books for an interminable period of time, maintaining their ‘open and active’ status by virtue of an uncanny aptitude for coming up with an uninterrupted string of new issues.

Furthermore, it has been my experience that those clients who seems particularly adept at occupying the thoughts of advocates for extended periods of time are rarely, if ever, satisfied by the service they receive. No number of resolved issues tend to result in the dissipation of the discontent that so characterises this client. It is in such cases that I believe an awareness of the psychology of demand might instructively inform a shift in advocacy approach.

I believe advocacy has an important role to play in safeguarding the rights and entitlements of vulnerable people in our society and the establishment of advocacy as a recognised profession (as marked by the recent development of the National Disability Advocacy Service) represents genuine progress in the battle for social justice. However, professional advocacy is still in its developmental stage, coming to terms with the parameters of its remit. It seems to me that the psychology of ‘need’, ‘demand’ and ‘desire’, complicated though this is, goes to the heart of advocacy and it would be naïve of advocates as a profession to imagine that these are insights that do not have relevance to the work we do. In the interest of providing an efficient, equitable and ethical service to the communities we serve, it is incumbent upon us to recognise where the suffering of a particular client, very real though this suffering may be, is unconnected to material conditions and so impervious to the types of intervention available to advocacy.

Ivan Molloy is a social worker and Psychotherapist based in Athlone. Between 2007 and 2009 Ivan worked as the Mental Health Advocate for Co. Westmeath and more recently he has worked as the Disability Advocate for Co. Offaly. In 2010 Ivan established Midland Psychotherapy, a service dedicated to bringing a quality and accessible psychoanalytic option to mental health care in the Midlands region. Ivan’s practice is informed by the understanding that mental health disturbance has a cause and that elucidating this cause allows for the possibility of recovery. Ivan can be contacted at or on 086.2032384.


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