It’s been three years since the National Alliance on Mental Illness has been able to hold NAMICON, the nonprofit’s annual conference, in person. To say that organizers are excited to see attendees face-to-face is putting it lightly.
“At NAMI, we love to collaborate,” said Daniel H. Gillison, NAMI national CEO. “As an organization, we say, ‘Nothing about us without us,’ and ‘You are not alone.’ That applies to our members and to the events that we host. For our organization, gathering in community, being able to come back together is just so important.”
Gillison, who was hired as the COVID pandemic shut down large in-person meetings, feels this desire particularly acutely. “I am what has been referred to as a ‘virtual reality CEO,’” he joked. “I can’t wait to finally see everyone in person.”
NAMICON’s return will take place May 24-27 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Historically, the conference has been held near the organization’s national office in Washington, D.C., but this year organizers wanted the event to be held in a more central location so more people could attend.
Geography aside, it was a good choice, said Sue Abderholden, NAMI Minnesota executive director. The state is home to a number of highly regarded mental health activists, including the late Senator Paul Wellstone, co-namesake (with Sen. Pete Domenici) of the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. NAMI Minnesota is the largest NAMI branch in the nation, and with 22 years at the helm as of this fall, Aberholden is the longest-serving executive director.
The conference will draw some 1,000 attendees, and NAMI Minnesota will play a central role at the event, Abderholden said. “My board president will welcome people to the conference. One of my board members, she’s a Native woman, is working with someone to do the land acknowledgment.”
NAMI Minnesota staff have also invited Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan to attend the conference, as well as the state’s two senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. And NAMI Minnesota will tout its statewide work on competency restoration, at a session open to all conference attendees.
There will also be many state residents in attendance at the event, Abderholden said. “We have a lot of people with mental illness who come, also family members, professionals. It’s a pretty big thing.”
Many topics covered
The conference is organized around six tracks. Areas of focus include crisis response and intervention, culture and identity in mental health, innovations in research and treatment, workplace mental health, and youth and young adult mental health. Before the convention’s official start, there will be a special gathering of executive directors from NAMI alliances across the country.
The conference will open with a keynote by fashion designer Kenneth Cole, who will talk about founding the Mental Health Coalition, a national nonprofit focused on increasing conversations around mental health.
In the crisis response and intervention track, Gillison explained, conference attendees will be discussing the, “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the 988 mental health crisis line. We now have a three-digit, easy-to-remember number for suicide prevention and mental health crisis response. You now have certified professionals who receive calls and dispatch a crisis unit. This is a whole continuum of care that is being enhanced.”
Gillison also sees the conference as an opportunity to expand his organization’s reach to more people. “NAMI has traditionally been a group where the majority of participants have been white and middle class,” he said. “We are building ways of actually working in under-resourced communities. We’re aware that we’ve got to look across the landscape and realize that mental illness doesn’t have a race or a political party or a level of income. It can impact someone who is incredibly wealthy and someone who is incredibly poor.”
Personal activism drives societal change
NAMI was founded in Madison, Wisconsin, by two mothers, Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young, who each had a child with schizophrenia. When the young organization held its first national conference in 1979, 284 representatives from 29 states attended, mostly family members of people with mental illness.
Fueled by personal experience, NAMI grew to more than 600 local affiliate groups and 49 statewide organizations. “Many of our executive directors have turned their pain into purpose,” Gillison said.
Gillison has followed in the steps of the nonprofit’s founders, responding to his own personal pain by taking on this leadership role. He worked in the private sector for 30 years but saw this role as an opportunity to give back. His life was forever changed by the death of a close family member. “She lived with major depression,” Gillison explained. “She was working successfully, living what appeared to be a happy life, but then she lost her life to suicide at age 26.”
In the wake of this tragedy, Gillison said, other family members also struggled. “I saw my uncle, who I loved to death, getting into substance abuse. As a result, he passed away.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.
Gillison also lost a neighbor to suicide, and he witnessed this death’s impact on their family. “I’m a father, an uncle, a son, a friend,” he said. “I know what mental illness looks like; I know that all people need support. I wanted to take those experiences and see if I could in any way shape or form be part of this wonderful organization called NAMI that works to change the outcomes for families navigating mental illness.”
Gillison said he has seen the positive impact that advocacy groups like NAMI have had on the general population. When he was growing up, people were much more reluctant to talk about mental illness, and he thinks that silence might have played a role in his loved one’s suicide.
That kind of communication and advocacy has led to a shift in the general population’s willingness to talk about mental illness, he said: “Individuals are much more open in terms of sharing about their mental health.”
Abderholden agreed, adding that during her time leading NAMI Minnesota, she has seen positive changes across the state. “We make a difference every day,” she said of her organization. “We have classes, support groups, a helpline. I do see change. If I didn’t see any change that would be hard. But that’s not the case: Looking back we’ve seen pretty significant change over the last two decades.”
Those shifts in attitude and approach are also reflected in other areas, Gillison added, from conversations between friends and family to workplace support. In many cases, young people are leading the charge.
“The conversations are getting more open,” Gillison said. “This new generation is much more open in terms of speaking out about what they are navigating and also speaking with their employers about the benefits package and asking, ‘What do you do for mental wellness?’ And you have CEOs who are invested in the well-being of their employees. It’s so inspiring and encouraging.”