NAMI Activist Betsy Greer Remembered As Fierce Advocate For Individuals With Serious Mental Illnesses

Betsy Greer, second from left in brown pants and vest, celebrating with Northern Va. NAMI friends before her illness.

(11-8-19) Activist Betsy Greer is being remembered as a dogged advocate. She died Sunday after battling cancer for more than a year.

When we first met in 2006 after my book was published, she described herself as a ‘troublemaker.” That was how she viewed her role. She was relentless in pushing elected leaders, government agencies, mental health providers and advocacy groups to do more to help persons with mental illnesses. When others said, “It can’t be done,” Betsy demanded to know why before setting out to prove them wrong.

Much of her ‘troublemaking” was done through the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Along with her late husband, Richard, she co-founded the NAMI chapter in Arlington. Together, they worked tirelessly to help put NAMI on a strong footing in the Washington D.C. area.

Richard and Betsy were journalists, and she often used a her investigative reporter’s skills to cut through fluff and tackle problems locally and nationally.

Fellow Arlington advocate and friend, Naomi Verdugo, in an email described how Betsy helped her.

Some 17 years ago, my school age son became psychotic, suicidal, was hospitalized…One of my sisters flew out from Hawaii and stayed in Arlington, Virginia for seven months to help me through this terrible time.  I was unable to get help from Arlington Public Schools, my son’s health insurance company (United Healthcare), and Arlington Dept of Human Services.

But my sister found Betsy Greer’s phone number through NAMI, and she provided so much support and help in what was the worst time of my life.  And she did this at a time that was the worst time of her life, when her beloved husband, was dying.
Betsy became my mentor and friend.  She got me to  start a NAMI Family Support Group in Arlington (which became 3 different support groups) which I still co-facilitate 17 years later, to become a member of Arlington’s Community Services Board (which oversee mental health services) for nine years, and to become an advocate for improved services for those with mental illnesses… She was a lifeline and influencer for so many of us…Her life resulted in profound and positive differences in the lives of so many of us throughout Virginia and across the nation.

Betsy and her husband funded an annual advocacy award given out by NAMI each year.  She had many friends among Arlington residents with mental illness and worked hard for the CSB, Friends of Clarendon House, and seemed to know every NAMI member working on innovative services in states across the country.  She loved tennis, going to the gym, going to Bethany Beach and loved her synagogue, Kol Ami.

Long time NAMI advocate Ron Honberg wrote:

One of Betsy’s enduring contributions was her penchant for taking young people new to NAMI under her wing and inspiring them to become great advocates in their own right.  Naomi is a prime example of such a person! 

Honberg’s former NAMI colleague Bob Carolla said:

Betsy was a fierce, dedicated, compassionate advocate. She encouraged me in my recovery in the 1990s and later when I became NAMI’s national director director of media relations.

Even while Betsy was fighting cancer, Bob said she remained dedicated to NAMI.

This past summer we talked together about how the NAMI movement is entering a new era with a new generation of leaders. To honor her memory, we need to keep moving forward.

Ex-NAMI CEO Mary Gilliberti described Betsy as “a force of nature.

We went to the same gym and I would often see her there.  Every time, we would stop to chat and I would get an update on mental health issues in Arlington and she would always encourage me to keep up the good fight nationally.  I still remember the fierce battle she and others waged to get more mental health services when Virginia Hospital Center wanted to expand. She asked me to testify. I did what she said and so did the County Board. You didn’t say no to Betsy and our community is better and stronger as a result of her tireless advocacy.

In 2006, Betsy was recognized locally with a Life Time Community Hero Award for her decades of service in Arlington County (Va.). A 1961 graduate of Oberlin College (Ohio), Betsy received its Distinguished Service Award in 2011 for her mental health work.

I often referred desperate families to Betsy and she always jumped right in to help them. When my son, Kevin, was going through a rough period, Betsy took me aside and talked openly about her own son’s struggles. She offered advice to Patti and me about how to cope when someone you love is not doing well.

The three words that I would use to describe Betsy are energetic, realistic, and brave.

She always was advocating. She was no nonsense when it came to discussing how horrific serious mental illnesses are, and she was brave in taking on each challenge.

We have lost a true champion in her death.

Memorial service will be on Thursday, November 21st at 2:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Arlington.

From NAMI national:

A Tribute To Betsy Greer’s Life Of Advocacy

By Cherryl T. Cooley, NAMI’s Managing Editor, Content Marketing.

“When I went to the home of Betsy Greer in early May to interview her for our 40 anniversary stories, I felt that I had stepped back in time. As a newcomer to NAMI, sitting with Mrs. Greer was the perfect way to onboard into my new organization. She shared her memories of NAMI from the time its national office was housed in a one-bedroom apartment.

One of the first things she told me that day was that she was proud to be a troublemaker. Peaceful agitation, she said, was the way to get things done. If there has ever been any truth to the saying that well-behaved women don’t make history, Betsy Greer, in all her fierceness, was the living embodiment of how NAMI has continued to make its mark over the last 40 years.

As is the case with many advocates who are pushing boundaries to protect people living with a serious mental illness, Betsy’s involvement started as something quite personal and became a lasting commitment. She and her husband Richard Greer, NAMI’s first legislative director, sought NAMI programs and support to find ways to help their son, who lives with schizophrenia.

As soon as they realized the significance of NAMI to their family’s journey, they saw NAMI as a way to help others who faced the same challenges. What began as a family quest became a lifelong pursuit of changing the world.

After Richard joined NAMI as a full-time employee and later began working at the state level, Betsy kept the fight alive locally. And she continued to build NAMI’s legacy even after her husband’s death.

On Sunday, Nov. 3, Betsy Greer passed away — a fact that makes me both sad and proud. In the span of an afternoon conversation, I had been in the presence of the kind of grit and courage it takes to build an organization like NAMI. Mrs. Greer understood that in order to effect change, she had to be willing to be misunderstood and keep the national conversation around mental health going. This constant push was essential for progress. She lived, breathed, pushed, is our history.

It always feels like a loss when such a fire as Betsy Greer burns out. In my community, we say that when an elder dies, a library burns. Thankfully, I was able to help capture some of that library in her voice and through her eyes in a final interview that will appear in the winter issue of the Advocate magazine for NAMI members.

Betsy Greer’s activism has helped create a trail of remarkable wins for us as a national movement. In my time with her, I felt that I gained a deeper understanding of our mission and had a living example of what it means to take mental health advocacy personally.

The NAMI alliance is so much better for the unwavering dedication of Betsy Greer and what she offered to the people she served and those she inspired.”

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.