NAMI Convention Coverage: Standing Ovations, Success, Still Much To Do!


Here is the first report from bloggers who are attending the National Alliance on Mental Illness Convention in San Antonio. Thanks so much Joe and Beth! I was especially thrilled to read about the continued excellent work that my friend, Gilbert Gonzales, is doing with CIT and jail diversion. Bexar County continues to be an excellent example for us to cite when asked if programs that divert our loved ones from jails save money and lives!

National NAMI Notes by Joseph and Beth Meyer 

We have been to several state and national conferences, but this was our first national NAMI Convention.  Within our first sessions, one thing caught our attention—there were more standing ovations in the first two hours than in all of the other conferences we have attended put together.  It speaks to the hope NAMI has brought to many—those with mental illness, family caregivers, and those of us in both roles.  Living with mental illness can be exhausting, but everyone has a reason to celebrate the progress that is being made for these four days.  

Before the beginning of the opening session, Dr. Keris Myrick, President of NAMI, presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Dr. Gary Mihelish, a past president of NAMI Montana.  In his acceptance speech, Dr. Mihelish thanked many who helped him be successful over the years, including Dr. Fred Frese who received an enthusiastic round of applause from hundreds in the audience who admire the wit, good humor, and success he has achieved while living with schizophrenia.  Dr. Myrick also recognized Stacy Hollingsworth with the NAMI Young Leader Award for her work in establishing a NAMI Campus group at Rutgers University.

The motto of this year’s NAMI Convention is “Together We Can Make A Difference”, an appropriate theme given Dr. Mihelish’s examples of how he excelled partly by relying on the help of others.  In the opening session, Dr. Keris Myrick moderated a panel that began with Reverend Sam Hargrove, a Persian Gulf Vet who lit a candle and asked audience members to count to 22 in unison—he extinguished the candle and pointed out that every day 22 veterans die of suicide, then added “in a nation of so much wealth, love, and generosity we have a lot of work to do.”  Continuing the togetherness theme, he called NAMI “a family of like-minded individuals who have come together, offering their time and talents, for an organization that lifts up those who cannot speak for themselves.” 

The next panelist to speak was Lupe Morin, a family advocate who joined with her “Latina Mamas” to translate NAMI program materials into Spanish after her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Through NAMI, she realized her brother was not ‘loco’’ and introduced him to support groups where he would be with others who understood his illness.  Lupe’s education through NAMI helped her daughters find the mental health services they needed to be both personally and professionally successful after suicidal behavior.  Lupe ended by saying “together and united we can accomplish anything we want.  Do not give up hope.  Do not give up the fight.  Our loved ones deserve the same rights that we all have.”

Stacy Hollingsworth spoke next about her experiences of depression and suicidal thoughts in college.  After unsuccessful trials of medicine and electroconvulsive therapy, she withdrew from school and didn’t leave the house for two years, except for doctor appointments.  She learned about NAMI and found the stories of challenges her peers overcame to be encouraging.  Her mother participated in a family-to-family course and she became an “In Our Own Voice” speaker, which gave her a sense of empowerment.  Stacy evoked laughter when she pointed out that each generation has a different perspective on mental illness—on a drive to the grocery store, her mother remarked that a man talking and waving his arms while crossing the street alone must have a mental health issue, but Stacy replied that he simply was talking on a Bluetooth device. 

Joe and Beth Myer

Joe and Beth Myer

Royce White, player with the NBA’s Houston Rockets, is attending his first NAMI Convention.  He witnessed traumas of physical and emotional abuse as a child, nearly lost a friend who collapsed in a basketball game, and lived through a tornado.  He attributes his struggles with anxiety issues, PTSD, and OCD to these experiences.  He spoke of realizing that his trouble getting the Rockets to acknowledge his anxiety disorder as a part of human existence is a microcosm of the corporate view.  They wanted him to go off and solve his problems independently, before coming back.  But, he said we share the same highway—the leaders of corporations cannot run from their ignorance and he can’t run from his illness.  Royce and the other four speakers all had different experiences and all were helped by their involvement in NAMI.  Each of them are now giving back to make a positive difference in their communities. 

Michael Fitzpatrick, M.S.W., executive director of NAMI in Arlington, Virginia followed the panelists.  He described the Whitehouse National Conference on Mental Health and plans for national dialogues in ten major U.S. cities.  Calling our times a once-in-a-generation opportunity and perhaps the greatest focus on mental health since deinstitutionalization, he called on NAMI to not miss this opportunity to “bring science to bear; make mental illness visible to the public; create a sense of urgency; frame the issues for the public and decision makers; play the political game; and mobilize effective support.”  Fitzpatrick described rapid growth in NAMI Walks participation and fundraising.  He talked of efforts by NAMI to reach youth at colleges through fraternities, sororities, and social media—42 active NAMI Campus clubs, 127 NAMI Campus clubs in development, and 60 more inquiries to form clubs.  Fitzpatrick also noted that two national fraternities and sororities have asked for NAMI to develop mental health awareness training.  This focus on a NAMI presence on campus grabbed our attention, because the topic of our afternoon poster presentation is the 2013-14 Common Experience at Texas State University that will focus on educating students and community members about mental health and illness.  There should be ample opportunities to collaborate closely with NAMI and its affiliates, including the NAMI Cats student organization that was recently founded at Texas State.

After the opening session, we attended “Out of Crisis and Into Treatment” facilitated by Leon Evans, CEO of The Center for Health Care Services, and his colleague, Gilbert Gonzales, Director of Diversion Initiatives and Communications at The Center.  This concurrent session focused on collaborative efforts by the Center for Health Care Services and Haven for Hope with the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and other organizations.  Gilbert Gonzales credits the crisis intervention training of police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians for reducing the use of force in crisis situations to one incident in the past four years.  It is combined with a jail diversion program that focuses on treating those who would otherwise be inappropriately incarcerated due to mental illness and/or substance abuse.  Since the installation of these programs, Bexar County Detention Center has gone from an overcrowded facility with deplorable conditions that had been ordered to increase capacity to a facility that today has 1,000 unoccupied beds. The average recidivism rate is about 60% for people with mental illness coming off of parole, but the rate is only 6% for the people who have gone through the Bexar County program!

The Center for Health Care Services keeps meticulous data on the money saved by reduced incarceration and associated court costs, reduced time spent by officers transporting persons who are inebriated or mentally ill from an average of 16 wait hours per case in emergency rooms to about 10 minutes for admitting non-violent adults to their Restoration Center where people are typically held for 5-12 hours and encouraged to sign up for long-term detox services.  One such long-term program is provided by Haven for Hope, where over a thousand people sleep nightly on the Prospect Courtyard, a concrete area with sleeping mats enclosed by a fence.  Psychiatric services are provided in the Courtyard, since clients have not reliably responded to past referrals, and a 3-month residential recovery program with dormitory housing is offered to those who pledge to work towards recovery.  The presenters claimed an 85% success rate for long-term recovery.

After speaking to Leon Evans and Gilbert Gonzales about presenting during the year of the Common Experience at Texas State University, we rushed over to the poster presentation area where we had mounted our materials that morning.  There were already a half-dozen people there and we ran out of handouts after giving away 60 copies of our materials in about an hour.  Many consumers and family members, some who were faculty members or parents of children at other colleges and universities, stopped by and chatted with us about the upcoming Common Experience program titled “Minds Matter: Exploring Mental Health and Illness” that will run from September 2013 through May 2014.   There was a high level of enthusiasm for the Common Experience program, which we hope may be imitated by other colleges and universities.  Dr. Gary Mihelish, winner of the NAMI Lifetime Service Award that morning stopped by and kindly offered his thanks for the upcoming program.  Always the gentleman, Dr. Fred Frese also visited the poster presentation for the Common Experience where he will be a guest speaker in September 2013.  After our poster visitors had dwindled away by mid-afternoon, we went to a late lunch and rested our sore feet! 

For more information about the Common Experience of “Minds Matter: Exploring Mental Health and Illness”, contact or visit


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. Terri Wasilenko says

    Thank you Joe & Beth. I enjoyed reading your blog coverage. You covered a lot of issues and shared the theme of hope and celebration with me. My family are NAMI-NYS members. So glad we started NAMI Cayuga County in 2002! It has been a lifesaver for us and many of our peers. I look forward to further reports from you guys (:
    Terri Wasilenko

  2. Excellent reporting, one really gets a sense of being there by reading your blog. Thanks Joe and Beth!

  3. Thank you Joe and Beth for taking time to write during the convention. It’s the next best thing to being there.