What Does “Alliance” Mean? Thoughts on the 2019 NAMI National Convention

July 2019

By Thomas J. (Tom) Powell

NAMI Washtenaw board member Judy Krieg, flanked by colleagues Genna Popper, left, and Deena Andreola at the 2019 NAMI National Convention.

If someone had asked me before the convention what I thought “alliance” meant in National Alliance on Mental Illness, I would have said it had to do with our shared lived experience. The convention got me to think of alliance in another way. NAMI is an alliance of local affiliates, state organizations and the national organization. All three are essential for an effective organization. Local affiliates are the grass roots of NAMI. State organizations do the training and address advocacy issues, often linked to the actions (or lack thereof) of state legislatures and state agencies. In Michigan, think of the radical 298 proposals. The national organization pursues advocacy at the federal level (think of parity) and produces signature programs such as Family-to-Family (F2F) and Peer-to-Peer (P2P). Without strong connections to affiliates, state and national entities could not leverage the power of the grass roots.

One of the most important events of the national convention was the rollout of the 2020–2025 Strategic Plan. Three major goals were set forth: (1) People get help early; (2) people get the best possible care; and (3) people get diverted from justice system involvement. I like this way of constructing our mission. In matrix format, each goal is associated with objectives that relate to our education, support and advocacy functions. Goals and objectives are further related to “accelerators.” Progress will be accelerated by targeting (a) diversity and inclusion, (b) technology, (c) partnerships, and (d) financial strength.

The convention’s menu of sessions was rich. I got a lot out of the first day, its focus on leadership issues, the development of the aforementioned goal matrix, the changes in education programs (e.g., the use of online technology and the shorter, updated version of F2F) and brief talks by candidates for the national board of directors. Thursday’s plenary session featured Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, the first assistant secretary for mental health and substance use. She advises the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on behavioral healthcare and leads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). I felt we were talking to just the right person. The assistant secretary voiced strong support for early intervention and coordinated specialty care, medication-assisted treatment, and treatment for co-occurring disorders. The remainder of Thursday and Friday had much to choose from and more than any one person could take in. I attended (or checked out) sessions dealing with work, the opioid crisis, philanthropy, diversity and inclusion, and support groups.

One of the most moving experiences resulted from my participation in a family support session. Participants spoke of disheartening failures of ACT (Assertive Community Treatment), insurance access issues, frustrations with loved ones, and the agonizing persistence of loved ones’ tormenting voices. Moved by this sharing I felt uplifted as I left the meeting. And I was reminded of why, as members of NAMI, we’re allied with one another — the other meaning of alliance. The ambitious schedule of meetings meant there was something for everyone. It also meant frustration was inevitable, with more meetings than any one person could take in. One of these meetings offered as a bonus a thumb drive with 274 files (46GB). The folders include family education videos, logos, program resources, online training resources, and P2P program videos. Judy Gardner has this drive should you want to copy it.

Exhibit hall booths were great places for literature and conversation. I chatted with representatives from SAMHSA, the National Institute of Mental Health, NAMI, and the U.S. Social Security Administration. Health care facilities and treatment providers sponsored other booths. Our own Judy Krieg represented one of the vendors. I asked about Ticket to Work, psychiatric pharmacists, and tardive dyskinesia, but you could find a conversation partner on almost any topic. Lots of conversations took place before and after sessions. No special preparation was required. Just sit beside someone and ask a question: What’s your budget? Answer: practically nothing (a WA affiliate); $750,000 (West Palm Beach Co.). Or, how do you manage continuity in F2F? Lots of variation there. Interesting conversations with leaders from Appleton, WI, and San Antonio, TX.

I attended the board candidate talks and read their impressive biographies.  I wish I could have voted for all 12. (I had the honor of casting NAMI Washtenaw’s vote.) But we could vote for only five. I voted for Holloway (awesome NAMI track record); Plouck (fantastic connections to state and federal agencies); Beach (extraordinarily productive, with links to FaithNet); Fladen (good ideas about NAMI structure); and Martinez (great partnerships with racial and ethnic minorities). It’s no surprise that no one person could take in all of the convention. Thus, different people will have different perspectives on it. Check with our Washtenaw attendees for their perspectives (Mark Creekmore, Judy Gardner, Barb Higman, and Judy Krieg).

A session I regret missing was the research plenary on Saturday featuring coordinated specialty care. Fortunately, Dr. Robert K. Heinssen of NIMH kindly shared his slides with me. The slides are NIMH approved and can be broadly disseminated. The coordinated specialty care approach, also referred to as “care for early serious mental illness” or “first episode care,” is attracting increased attention at both the state and federal level.

Lest you think it was all work, have a look at the photos. Judy G., Barb and I are pretending to dance (speaking for myself). Since Mark and Judy K. are not in the photo I can only assume they wanted to distance themselves from the clueless “dancers.” I hope this sketch of what the convention offers convinces you that our affiliate should maintain and expand its level of participation. Some affiliates earmark funds to send members to the convention; others do special fundraising for this purpose. Would one of these approaches be right for us? Overall, I hope we will consider that the “alliance” in our name suggests that NAMI cannot succeed in its mission without strong affiliates, strong state organizations and a strong national organization. Let’s think about how our affiliate can participate in the 2020 Atlanta convention, scheduled for July 15–20.

Leave a Reply