NAMI’s Future – Frankie Berger’s Speech: “Our compassion is our compass.”

(7-4-17) Whispers at last week’s convention that Frankie Berger had only joined NAMI a few days before filing her paperwork to run for its national board, along with her being an employee at the Treatment Advocacy Center, apparently doomed her election chances. But I have watched Frankie work on Capitol Hill and NAMI would be wise to welcome her as a fellow advocate because she is an up-and-coming dynamo with tremendous talent to offer. Here is a copy of the speech that she delivered. It is the second speech that I’ve posted this week by candidates with different viewpoints for those who couldn’t attend the convention. )


I was a young teenager when my mom’s depression turned severe, clinical and suicidal. She was a single mom and in really bad shape, and as an only child, I was often left to care for both her and myself. 

I was paying bills with babysitting money, and regularly grocery shopping at the local convenience store because I couldn’t drive. No one ever asked how old I was when I made the doctors’ appointments, and if you know someone’s birthday, you can pick up their medications. 

I’d spend my days in school terrified of what I’d come home to – an empty house or worse.  frankie berger

This was our normal routine. 

My grades and absenteeism at the time were abysmal. Getting to school was dependent on finding a ride. At one point, my teachers wrote a collective note to my mom that said, “We believe that maybe Frankie isn’t being challenged enough.” 

Yes. I was.

 I loved my mom tremendously, she was a muralist, beautiful, and she would call me Peanut.

Fast forward a few years. Mom was feeling better, was stable, and I was in Denmark for school. I was finishing my thesis, about to graduate. In the middle of the night I got the call. It was my grandfather on the phone. He had never called me in his life. I knew it must be bad news. All of a sudden I was holding my breath. I was fainting while standing. He was trying to tell me my mother was dead at 51 years old. 

Was it suicide? Did it happen because I left her alone? Had this illness finally reached its most feared natural conclusion? We all wondered in silence. I still feel guilty for thinking it.

In my case my mom’s death was due to a sudden, unrelated illness. But growing up, I truly and naively thought I could fix my clinically depressed, suicidal mom – I thought if I could relieve the burdens on her, she could be happy.

 As I’ve grown up I realize that I cannot fix everything. But it doesn’t stop me from trying.

 Which brings me to you all, here with NAMI today. So many people are wondering, what is the role of NAMI when NAMI plays so many roles to so many different people? This is an exciting time.

 Yes, there are a million other mental health, mental illness, and mental health conditions organizations out there, but none of them are NAMI. NAMI is a juggernaut and a well respected presence at policy tables across the country.

 I know this, because I have lobbied lawmakers for change many times, side by side with state and local NAMIs and NAMI National.

 I am a successful, tireless policy strategist, I excel at working together with all sorts of strange bedfellows to achieve change. I direct the government relations department for the Treatment Advocacy Center, and consistently, NAMI families and chapters are the most dedicated champions for hope and reform.

But there is a growing disconnect between the families and NAMI as an organization at a crossroads.

Bradford Pear Tree – Branches, leaves and trunk

 Picture this: the branches, leaves, and heavy flowers of a mature Bradford pear tree are stunning – their canopies fan out into the perfect shape of what a child would draw for a tree. 

But this tree has a structurally fatal flaw- all of its branches originate from the same point, it was bred to look beautifully top heavy, but without having strengthened the trunk that supports it. As the limbs grow outward they put pressure on the different, opposing branches, and the tree splits and breaks.

 NAMI’s leaves and branches are everything pretty and easy and new and exciting and hopeful.

 But your trunk, NAMI, is the families of people with severe mental illness. And without proper supports and care, your trunk is going to break. But together we can strengthen and salvage this beautiful thing.

 NAMI’s growing pains are a symptom of success. A problem is that the families who helped make NAMI successful are feeling marginalized. So bring them back in. In a meaningful way.

 My first priority would be to provide them with a direct line to leadership. A council structure with policy recommendations that are guaranteed consideration, backed by demonstrated actions.

 I know NAMI can be the organization we all need it to be, because I have been there with Habitat for Humanity and I understand the structure and the growing pains of a giant non-profit.

 I understand mission drift, and the equally difficult mission defined so large as to include everyone and everything.

 We don’t have all the answers yet, we need early intervention, but there are adults who are sick right now. We need to use the tools that we know can provide some relief. Our compassion is our compass.





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.