Observations about the 2007 NAMI National Convention

Robin Cunningham Health Guide

    My annual pilgrimage to the NAMI National Convention has become for me, as it has for thousands, an opportunity to gather with friends, share personal experiences, and catch up on the latest information about mental illnesses and related issues.


    Progress in the fight against serious brain diseases comes from numerous sources and often when we least expect it. Sometimes it is nothing less than a revolution. More often it is an accumulation of bits and pieces that, when fitted together, begin to make sense, to provide some answers. Even those of us that have the time rarely have the expertise to interpret and integrate all this information in a meaningful way. NAMI has rescued thousands of us.

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    The education program at the NAMI Annual Convention is superb. Enthusiastic presenters share the latest information in their fields of expertise, laboring hard to do so in a way that lay people will understand. They also make serious efforts to explain how their information relates to other issues. In addition, there are series of classes intended for the novice, both consumer and family member alike.


    Like those before it, the NAMI 2007 Convention was a family reunion of sorts, a very large family, not bound by common blood, but by common cause: to improve the quality of life of those suffering from mental illness, as well as their family and friends, and ultimately to eradicate serious brain disorders. Each year we respectfully mourn the loss of some of our numbers and rejoice in new members that have found solace, comfort and understanding at this conclave.


    In addition to the two hats that I have always worn at NAMI conventions, those of a consumer and family member, this year a third one was added. I agreed to do some interviews and write a series of blogs about the NAMI Convention for SchizophreniaConnection, part of The HealthCentral Network. My interviews and discussions will be the nucleus for upcoming blogs which are intended to provide readers, be they consumers, family members, providers, advocates or other interested parties, with an additional perspective.

    I have learned that each convention, like a person, takes on its own personality, one created in part by the theme of the convention and scheduled events, but also from the news of the day, and the particular set of individuals who have chosen to attend. This year was no exception. The theme for 2007 was "Building Our Movement, Building Our Future." The news of the day, the buzz if you will, was, as always, a mixture. It ranged from the tragic shooting deaths of Virginia Tech and how this singular event may affect the stigma that continues to engulf mental illness to the continuing growth and burgeoning successes of NAMI's Signature Programs, such as the Family to Family and In Our Own Voice educational and stigma-busting efforts at the national, state and local levels.


    I believe there were at least three things about this year's convention that set it apart from previous gatherings in a fundamental way. The first was the intensity of our demands for improvements in mental health care delivery systems at the national, state and local levels coupled with the palpable expectations of measurable results.


    The second was the sense that because NAMI has labored long and hard, it is now in a position to effectively advocate for its constituents.


    The third difference was the feeling that NAMI, after a great deal of hard work, has succeeded in developing an informed, integrated and strategic plan for achieving its objectives. In other words, NAMI has done sufficient homework and it is now time for action and to begin implementing the changes its leaders and membership have embraced.


    Results over the years have, in many cases, been too slow in coming. As Mike Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of NAMI, said in his opening remarks, there are failures inside a fragmented system, failures of will of governors and legislators. Everyday we confront the violence of a mental healthcare system that gets a report card of "D" as the national average.

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    Mike Fitzpatrick is one of many individuals that I had the honor and distinct pleasure to interview, with the specific intent of giving each the opportunity to express their observations and opinions on many of the pressing issues involving mental illness. All of the interviewees took this opportunity to enthusiastically, and often passionately, express views on their particular area(s) of expertise and involvement.


    While the ideas and supporting details of my interviews and discussions will be presented in the upcoming blogs, I wanted to offer some highlights so as to convey the breadth of topics, the importance of the issues and the approach used in the discussions and search for viable solutions.


    • Kitty Dukakis, wife of Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic Nominee for President, is a consumer with treatment resistant depression. In her book, Shock, The Healing Power of Electroconvulsive Therapy, she presents an interesting and highly informative look at ECT and why she thinks this treatment deserves to be given serious consideration for severe cases of depression and other mental illnesses.
    • E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., psychiatrist, noted researcher on schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, author, and Associate Director for Laboratory Research at The Stanley Medical Research Institute, discusses his view that along with genetics and other factors, certain infectious agents may be involved in the etiology of schizophrenia.
    • Michael Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of NAMI USA, outlines a new NAMI program that will provide twice a week, free, consumer-run support groups in all major metropolitan areas throughout the USA for those with mental illness.
    • Suzanne Vogel-Scibilia, a psychiatrist and the out-going President of the NAMI National Board of Trustees, talks about her life as a Consumer, Provider, Family Member, and Friend. [These are all four of the classifications of membership within NAMI.]
    • Lynn Borton, Chief Operating Officer of NAMI, talks about the hard work done by NAMI at the local, state and national levels to develop their Strategic Plan. She also points to the fact that a successful plan (like recovery) is an on-going process.



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    The perspectives on mental illness I provide are not those of a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, but rather a consumer and family member. I have walked the walk on both sides of the street. As such, I can speak with experiential authority. It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what my experience with a brain disorder has been like on a day to day basis, i.e., to compare notes with you. Equally important, I will also make observations about being a family member and advocate based on my own experience. Any observations or comments you choose to make in return will be of great value.



Published On: July 14, 2007