A Career Based On Kindness To Boston’s Homeless: An Inspiring Example For Us All

During a two minute clip, one of my favorite humanitarians explains why he washed the feet of homeless Bostonians. 

(12-24-20)  For Dr. James J. O’Connell, it began during his residency by washing the feet of a homeless man.

One homeless client wondered aloud how skilled of a doctor O’Connell was if he had been assigned such a humbling task.

But it was that simple act of kindness which opened his eyes to the importance of treating individuals who are homeless as people of worth and launched his career as a street doctor to Boston’s homeless.

I was delighted when CBS’s Sunday Morning show featured Dr. O’Connell recently during a segment called Promoting the Power of Kindness.The eight minute segment raises questions about whether kindness can be taught or is a born trait for some.

I met him when he joined the board of directors of the Corporation For Supportive Housing, a national leader in building housing and developing programs that help individuals in need live independently. (If you want to be impressed read Dr. O’Connell’s bio at the end of his blog.) 

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Becoming “Everything To Everyone” – NAMI’s Quest As Largest Mental Health Grassroots Organization Grows

(12-21-20) I asked Luna Greenstein, who works at NAMI national as a senior manager, to tell me how the nation’s largest, grassroots mental health advocacy organization responded to the challenges of 2020.

The Growth of NAMI’s Mission in 2020

By Luna Greenstein

This year has been filled with adversity on many levels, but it is in times of adversity that we are forced to grow, to evolve. It is also in times of adversity that we tend to bond with our fellow humans who are facing the same challenges.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)’s evolution during 2020 is a perfect example of this.

We started this year like any of our last 40 years —  focused on our mission to better the lives of Americans with mental illness and their families. We were updating our programs to keep with the times, bringing people into our community through our awareness campaigns, and bringing our State Organizations and Affiliates throughout the country together to ensure we held a united front.

NAMI CEO Daniel Gillison Jr.

We also had a new CEO start in January, Dan H. Gillison Jr., the first Black American to lead the organization since its founding in 1979. As it turns out, he was exactly the right person at the right time.

When the pandemic hit in March, our mission expanded to face the challenge ahead. While we were still focused on our grassroots mission, we found ourselves with an increased need to help  all Americans, not just those with mental illness, cope with this crisis that was now impacting everyone’s mental health.

A Huge Undertaking : Becoming “everything to everyone.”

As you can imagine, this was a huge undertaking.

But no one was better suited to do this than NAMI. We are truly the only mental health organization that wants to “be everything to everyone.” While this isn’t always possible, we certainly try.

We are an Alliance made up of thousands of people who, simply put, care about other people and their mental health and want to help them have access to the resources, tools and care people need to cope with the challenges of mental health issues. Lastly, we are a group of people who are extremely familiar with discomfort — all of us have a reason why we are so dedicated to this mission — and, to put it mildly, this pandemic has been uncomfortable for everyone.

How did we change?

One of our goals at NAMI is to “meet people where they are.”  Well, now they were all at home. NAMI had to find ways to be there with everyone, too. The Alliance banded together to help our Affiliates and State Organizations transition their education classes and peer support groups to an online format.

The NAMI HelpLine switched to being remote for the first time in our history, and we increased our capacity significantly to handle the huge influx of calls from the new wave of Americans experiencing mental health issues for the first time.

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Group Urges Biden Administration To Install Peers In Top Positions, Reverse Dr. McCance-Katz’s Policies

(12-18-20) A group is urging the incoming Biden administration to appoint individuals with lived mental health experiences to leadership positions in the White House and at SAMHSA and reverse changes that Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz has implemented as the first Assistant Secretary of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

In a policy paper entitled: Back to Better Behavioral Health prepared for the Biden transition team, the group writes:

“The Biden Administration should look to new leadership at SAMHSA that is uniquely skilled to lead the way in helping our nation to heal by implementing evidence-based policies that advance the principles of recovery, resilience, peer support and trauma informed care. For example, people with lived experience of mental illness and trauma should be placed in high leadership roles to bring back meaning and morale to an agency that evidenced “considerable turnover and declining morale’ “

The group proposes creating a new peer position for Behavioral Health inside the White House and elevating “the voice of persons with lived experience and their families (in) all federal federal agencies.” It also wants to strengthen the IMD Exclusion, increase funding for Protection and Advocacy organizations, and restore funding for the Alternatives Conference.

These recommendations would signal a shift in direction – once again – at SAMHSA. If adopted, some would turn back the clock to how the department used to operate.Click to continue…

Three Authors Discuss Books At Summit Exposing Criminalization Of Americans With Mental Illnesses

Thanks to so many of you who congratulated my son, Kevin, yesterday on his completion of his Masters Degree in Social Work. I deeply appreciate your support.

(12-16-20) I’ve been fortunate to participate in a three-day summit this week whose speakers and attendees are focusing on decriminalizing mental illnesses.

I joined two other authors Monday in discussing the problem – more than two million Americans with mental illnesses being booked into jails each year.

Click here to watch the authors’ panel that I participated in along with Dr. Christine Montross, author of Waiting for An Echo: The Madness of American Incarceration and Alisa Roth, author of Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness. Our discussion was moderated by Norman Ornstein, a nationally known political scientist who lost his son, Matthew, to mental illness.

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From Being Arrested, Tasered & Hospitalized To Graduation Cap And Gown, My Son Earns His MSW

(12-15-20) Tomorrow I will be posting a blog about my participation with other authors in a mental health summit, but today I am sharing some joyous family news!

My son, Kevin Earley, who is identified in my book by his middle name, Michael, graduated this week from Virginia Commonwealth University with a Masters Degree in Social Work.

It has been 18 years since he was arrested after he broke into an unoccupied house to take a bubble bath during a psychotic break. He avoided being hamstrung for life by two felonies after he agreed to plead guilty to two lesser charges that remain on his record. It has been 14 years, since he was shot twice with a taser by Fairfax County police, handcuffed and driven to a mental health facility where I watched him lying on his belly with his hands cuffed behind him and his legs chained while talking nonsense to two police officers poking fun at him. It has been 12 years, since his last hospitalization – his fifth – when he finally acknowledged that he had bipolar disorder and decided to begin seeking help. Thankfully, he was supported by a wonderful social worker, Cyndi Anderson, caring doctors, his mother, Barbara Hunter, his “second set” of parents – Steve and Gillian Kussmann – my wife, Patti, and his siblings.

This has been a long journey for our family filled with challenges. Kevin once believed that he either would be in jail, homeless or dead because of his illness. He felt hopeless.

Today, he adds the MSW title to his name as he continues to work full-time in Arlington County, Va., as a peer specialist.

While I am a proud father, I am keenly aware that many of you have lost someone you love because of mental illness. I know many of you have a loved one currently in jail or prison because of mental illness. I know many of you have a loved one who is homeless or missing. I recognize that many of you are like I was in 2002 – panicked, unsure who to call, disbelieving that your child has a mental illness, angry because you can’t get help until your loved one is dangerous, and worried about an uncertain and scary future.

I am sharing our good news, not to boast, but to offer you hope and remind us all that most individuals with mental illnesses can and do get better if they get the individual help that they need.

Kevin joins his younger sister, Traci, as our second family member who has earned a Masters Degree and works in field. Her degree is in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and she assists clients at Pathways Homes.

I’m certain Traci chose her career because she saw what our family was going through trying to help Kevin. His illness impacted all of us and we are tremendously grateful, especially knowing how much he loathed school, that he didn’t give up and earned an MSW that he now will be able to put to good use helping others on their journeys to recovery.

Eight Steps Your Community Can Take To Launch A Jail Diversion Program


(12-11-20) FROM MY FILES FRIDAY: Cynthia Kemp, a deputy director at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, told attendees at a mental health summit two years ago how Arlington County, Va., created a jail diversion program that now is considered one of the best in the nation. Her advice is worth reading.

How To Launch A Jail Diversion Program In YOUR community

“Begin by finding a champion,” Cynthia Kemp told the 300 community leaders, who were invited by Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy (R.) to a Louisiana Mental Health Summit in Baton Rogue. (A short news clip where both Sen. Cassidy and I are interviewed can be watched here.)

Kemp said it could be a judge, sheriff, police chief, state legislator, mayor – anyone who understands that locking up people who are sick is a waste of tax dollars and human potential.

Step Two: Hit the streets. Talk to the police to learn what problems they face because of persons with mental illnesses becoming entrapped in the criminal justice system. The National Alliance on Mental Illness  reports that 40% of persons with a serious mental illness will have an encounter with the police. By some estimates, as high as 49% of all fatal police shootings involve someone with a mental illness. Advocates must also speak with public defenders, judges, prosecutors, local mental health providers, parents and persons with lived experience – and identify what barriers they have encountered preventing individuals from getting community mental health care.

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