Friends and Inspiration at NAMI Convention

Rather than giving a traditional talk at the opening session of the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses’ national convention in Chicago last week, NAMI Executive Director Mike Fitzpatrick asked me to join him in a “conversation” about the state of mental health.   

I was worried because it was supposed to be for thirty-minutes. What could we possibly discuss during a half hour on stage that the more than 2,300 people in the audience would want to hear? Ironically, I only got to my fifth question when we ran out of time.

We began by talking about the shootings in Tuscon and Virginia Tech. How should NAMI members and advocates react when someone with an untreated mental illness causes such havoc? I immediately brought-up the ongoing criminalization of persons with mental disorders. Much of our discussion was about money, especially NAMI’s disturbing report, State  Mental Health Cuts: A National Crisis. Mike’s grim warnings about potential cuts to Medicaid and having the states take responsibility for federal funds allocated for persons with mental disorders were insightful and alarming.

Other topics included NAMI Standards of Excellence, welcoming diversity, making sure that consumers and parents had seats at the NAMI table, and the many positive changes that have come about because of NAMI. Mike rightfully bragged about Family to Family courses, In Our Own Voice, CIT training in juvenile facilities, and NAMI Walks which raise millions each year.

He ended by asking an important question: IF NOT NAMI — THEN WHO?  NAMI is the largest, grassroots mental health advocacy group in the U.S. Who will fight for those of us with mental disorders or family members with them?

NAMI conventions are a great way to reconnect with friends and there were plenty in Chicago. I had a chance to talk to three of my favorites:  Dr. Fred Frese and his wife, Penny; and three fellow advocates who write blogs:  D.J. Jaffee , John McManamy and Chrisa Hickey. If you have never visited their websites or read they opinions, then you’ve missed some fabulous blogs.

I saw so many familiar faces that I can’t mention all of them. But I enjoyed hearing about what was happening at NAMI Far North in Idaho from Ruth McKnight and seeing Joel (Buddy) Wier, III, who was given the Richard T. Greer Advocacy Award for his tireless efforts in Columbia, S.C. I first met Buddy at the first national convention that I attended and he stuck a tee shirt in my hands that he had made. It showed a mosquito on it under the caption:

Those who feel too small to be of any consequence have obviously never gone to bed with a mosquito in the room.”

So what happened this year when I met Buddy?

He stuffed a slick pamphlet in my hands called WHAT HURTS   WHAT HELPS — an essential guide for Mental Health Providers and Families.  It was filled with helpful advice which I will write about in future blogs.

The advocacy award that Buddy received is named for NAMI’s first legislative director and life-long grassroots advocate, Dick Greer. His equally dedicated, advocate wife, Betsy, was at the convention — as always inspiring folks with her energy and enthusiasm. Betsy is from Fairfax, Va., where I live. Our representative on the national board was there too, Jim Payne. And, of course, NAMI stalwarts such as Carol Caruso, Clarice Raichel and Bill Lindsey.

It is always nice to meet a new advocate and I was especially pleased when  Bill Kurtis, the famed former CBS newsman and a Chicago resident, gave the convention’s opening remarks. He talked poignantly about his son, Scott, who had paranoid schizophrenia. Kurtis told me that his talk to NAMI was the first time that he had spoken to an audience about his son’s death at age 38 in 2009 on a Kansas cattle ranch that his father had bought so Scott would have a safe place to live. Before his speech, Curtis and I spoke about how often a person with a mental disorder can get better care in a rural environment, where people know him, than in a big city where he is just another ill person.

Following Bill Kurtis on stage were Jessie Close and her son Calen Pick. Of course, Jessie, is the sister of Glenn Close, the actress and advocate who has launched BringChange2Mind. Jessie has bipolar disorder and Calen has schizophrenia. Both talked eloquently about their illnesses and advocacy, sprinkling wit and wisdom together. I’ve never spoken to Glenn Close but during a dress rehearsal before the opening ceremony, Jessie handed me a cell phone and said, “Glenn wants to say hello!”

I thanked her for her hard work for our cause. It is so important when celebrities such as Bill Kurtis and Glenn Close speak out about their own struggles to help persons who have disorders!

The attendees at NAMI not only greet friends but also ask about how they or their loved ones  are doing mentally. Sadly, two very good friends of mine told me that their son and daughter respectively were in hospitals during the convention because of relapses. They were geninuely happy for me when I told them how well my son is.  I felt badly for them, of course, and they knew it.

That’s the thing about NAMI. I’d never met Bill Kurtis, Jessie Close or Calen Pick, yet I knew them. I knew them because we are all on that same rocky path. I know about their pain, because I’ve felt similar pains. I know their hopes, because I have felt those same hopes. And, in the best cases, I know about their joys because I have felt them too when my son has been well.  We share a bond.

That’s why we do —-  what we do. As Mike Fitzpatrick asked: If not NAMI  — then WHO?”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Pete — thanks for the info and feel of the NAMI conference.  Makes me wish I was there.

    And for anyone who hasn’t been, most likely the reason you are reading this blog entry right now means that you should.

    Most of all, I’m glad to hear you talk about how well your son is doing.

    Best wishes,

    Jon…yeah that one :)

  2. Pete, it was great to meet you too.  Thanks so much for signing a book for me.  I agree – I feel blessed to have friends like Jessie and Calen and Cinda and Linea Johnson and all the other great folks I met at the NAMI Convention.  There are strength in numbers, and in Chicago, we proved we are a mighty force.  

  3. Holly A. Phillips says

    Pete—I am 200 pages into “Crazy” and am completely drawn in by your way of writing, but also, the information you are sharing. 

    I have sent messages your way via this website, Facebook, and Twitter regarding your visit to Baton Rouge July 28 for the One Book One Community event. I would like to write an article for our weekly magazine about your book prior to the event. Would you be willing to answer just a few questions by email or phone for my article?

    Looking forward to hearing from you. 


    Holly A. Phillips
    Dig magazine, Baton Rouge

  4. Pete,
    Oh, how I wish I had been there! I did get Chrisa’s message and, to that, I will say the same: I love reading your posts, even when I disagree with you.

    I look forward to the day when I actually do get to meet you, face-to-face.

    (I’m likely moving to Mass. this Fall and I do see a few events lined up in your schedule. We shall certainly see.)