The National Alliance on Mental Illness is searching for a new executive director and one of the first challenges that its next leader will face is helping determine who NAMI represents and what principles it supports.
Mike Fitzpatrick, who has successfully led NAMI with a steady hand for ten years, announced in January that he is stepping down. He has done a great job. The NAMI that his predecessor will inherit is a much different organization from the one that Mike took over in 2004.
In recent years, more members with mental illnesses have joined NAMI and they have brought with them a different perspective from the group’s traditional base — parents of persons with diagnosed mental disorders.
NAMI was formed in 1979 by parents, mostly mothers of “consumers.” In the early days, some critics spoke bitterly about the “NAMI Mommies” because the critics objected to NAMI’s “parental” views, especially toward involuntary commitment and forced medication.
NAMI’s national rival, Mental Health America, was formed in 1909 when former patient, Clifford W. Beers, exposed abuses that he and other patients were suffering in state mental hospitals. From its inception, MHA has been a consumer focused and driven organization.
For many years, the differences between NAMI and MHA were stark. As more and more consumers have joined NAMI, the gap between them has narrowed.
A simple way to see this shift is by looking at NAMI’s complicated love-hate relationship with Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, one of psychiatry’s best known and lightening rod figures. In the beginning days of NAMI, Dr. Torrey was a much beloved NAMI spokesman. He traveled across the nation without charge, speaking at fledgling NAMI groups, and he donated the hardcover royalties of his book, Surviving Schzophrenia, to NAMI.
In 2002, NAMI invited Dr. Torrey to give the keynote at its annual convention but a decade later, NAMI’s convention organizers were warned that if Dr. Torrey was invited to speak at its national convention, consumers in NAMI would protest and walk out.
This year, NAMI has invited author Robert Whitaker to speak during an afternoon session at its convention June 27 to 30 in San Antonio. Whitaker’s most recent book, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, argues that psychiatric medications are not only harmful, but in some cases can cause mental disorders.
Dr. Torrey criticized Whitaker’s book in a review that you can read here. More recently, blogger Susan Inman, expressed fears in a Huffington Post editorial that Whitaker’s views were harming individuals with mental disorders. Whitaker has his supporters and has developed an especially devoted following among consumer groups that question the “medical model” and Big Pharma’s influence. Here is a sample.
For me, this shift away from Dr. Torrey’s views and the welcoming of Robert Whitaker as a NAMI speaker reflects how NAMI’s membership — or at least its board of directors - has moved away from its traditional parental based roots. I would not be surprised if NAMI soon drops its long-standing support of Assisted Outpatient Treatment.
Whether you consider this shift a good or bad thing clearly depends on your individual views about such issues as AOT, medication, involuntary treatment, Dr. Torrey and Whitaker. The point of this blog is simply this: NAMI’s views are shifting.
Because of the Newtown shooting, we are at a tipping point. Local, state and national politicians are talking seriously about the need to improve community mental health. Sadly, many politicians are hustling through laws that will increase stigma by drawing-up lists of consumers and reporting them to federal law enforcement. Laws are being passed that threaten traditional safeguards that protect confidentiality between a patient and doctor.
Now, more than ever, all of us concerned about improving mental health need a strong national voice – and that means we need a strong NAMI. There should be room at the table for all of our different voices to be heard. But it will take a skilled leader to blend such divergent voices into a unified one that speaks for the benefit of us all through NAMI.
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