NAMI Elects New Board Members But Not Without Controversy


(7-1-17) The National Alliance on Mental Illness elected five new board members yesterday. The unofficial results are that three of the new members are individuals with lived experience and two are veteran members re-elected to the board.

Their election sends a strong signal that a majority of members support NAMI’s efforts to broaden its appeal, especially to young people, beyond its traditional focus on only serious mental illnesses, which traditionally are schizophrenia, bipolar and life impairing depression.

Unfortunately, this election became contentious and was marred by actions aimed at swaying voters. In this day of social media and emails, the NAMI board should take a fresh look at its election process, especially in what it defines as campaigning.

NAMI officials will announce the winners later today, but I have been told by several reliable sources that he new board members are:

None of the four candidates who was campaigning on their self-named Focus on Serious Mental Illness platform was chosen, and another, who was an employee of the Treatment Advocacy Center, also did not win. In their speeches, all five of these candidate questioned NAMI about “mission drift.”

Claims by the SMI candidates that NAMI no longer paid enough attention to the individuals with serious mental illnesses dominated the campaign and prompted NAMI Board Chair Steve Pitman to issue a letter to affiliates discussing what he called a choice between “big tent” and “small tent” thinking – the latter, a thinly-veiled reference to the four SMI candidates.

Although NAMI rules prohibit candidates from campaigning, Pitman wrote that the current board’s “big tent” approach  “embraces all  in the conversation.  In the alternative,  NAMI would narrow its focus to that of serious mental illness in a much “smaller tent.”

After Pittman issued his letter, Jenna Mehnert, the Executive Director from NAMI Maine, sent an email entitled “Future of NAMI at Stake” in which she wrote:

There is an attempt to hijack NAMI to focus on forced medication, forced treatment and not self-determination… We need to focus on what we want to build- not simply respond to what is broken – and not fall for the myth that forcing every peer who refuses to take medication into a hospital can be a solution.  

I do not believe that recovery is ever found by force.  If you share this belief,  I am asking each of you to think long and hard before you give control of NAMI over to the Treatment Advocacy Center and those who believe that behavior management rather than recovery should be the mission of NAMI. 

Mehnert specifically told Maine members not to vote for the four SMI candidates and TAC employee:

Apparently, some NAMI state directors also received phone calls advising them to urge members not to vote for the five candidates who Mehnert cited.

When I investigated these reports,  I was told they were aimed at countering the influence of D. J. Jaffe, a long time advocate, author, and former board member who is active on social media through his own website.  He has more than 12,000 followers.

While every NAMI member is entitled to voice their individual opinion, I personally found Chairman Pitman’s letter, reports of calls to NAMI state directors, and especially Director Mehnert’s email not in keeping with NAMI’s no campaigning philosophy.

Decisions about NAMI’s leadership should be left up to its members to decide without undue influence. In this election, President Pitman and Director Mehnert may have gotten the results that they wanted but their actions leave a sour aftertaste and also diminished the victories of those who could and should have been elected on their own merits.


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.