NAMI Launches National "I Vote, I Count" Campaign For Voter Registration & Education

People With Mental Illness Represent "Last Frontier" Of Civil Rights Movement; Building On Iowa & New Hampshire, NAMI Seeks Fundamental Change In America's Mental Healthcare System

Feb 07 2000

Arlington, VA - The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) yesterday launched "I Vote, I Count 2000," a national non-partisan campaign for voter registration and education targeted to people with severe mental illness, their families and friends-with a goal of building a broad, aggressive movement for fundamental change in America's mental healthcare system.

At the opening session of NAMI's annual Legislative Conference, approximately 200 leaders from more than 40 states received a special briefing on successful pilot projects recently completed in Iowa and New Hampshire. (The conference continues today and Tuesday in Arlington's Hilton Hotel).

"People with mental illness are the last frontier of the civil rights movement that has spanned much of this century,' declared NAMI executive director Laurie Flynn. "Forty-four states still have laws that restrict the right of some people with treatable brain disorders to vote. Even if those laws are seldom applied, they represent stigma, prejudice, and discrimination against people with mental illness. We intend to challenge them, if necessary, while building a movement to demonstrate that we count too."

Mental illnesses are biological brain disorders and in many cases today treatment works-but only if a person can get it. The treatment success rate for schizophrenia is 60 percent: higher than the rate for heart disease. For bipolar disorder (manic depression) the treatment success rate is 80 percent.

"Mental illnesses kill." Flynn said. "We are not talking about mental health problems that come from the stresses of daily life. We are not talking about Woody Allen and 30 years of talk therapy. Too many politicians don't know the difference and they are confused about priorities in spending taxpayer dollars."

"We need fundamental change in the nation's mental healthcare system," Flynn continued. "It is today a system in crisis-and too much like a chamber of horrors. Too many people with serious mental illness are dying because they cannot get adequate treatment. They are dying in restraints on hospital wards. They are committing suicide. They are being shot by police or warehoused in prisons. In rare, but sensational cases, they may kill innocent people, and then in some cases, face execution, in which senseless, preventable tragedies are compounded by barbaric injustice."

As NAMI's campaign enters its next phase, the grassroots organization, with more than 210,000 members and 1,200 affiliates nationwide, intends to focus on South Carolina's February 19th presidential primary and states like California, New York, and North Carolina with primaries on "Super Tuesday" (March 7) where newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, andCharlotte Observer recently have published extensive investigative series exposing the failures of the mental healthcare system, or in some cases, the problem of homelessness..

"The presidential candidates are talking a lot about healthcare reform," Flynn said, "but they aren't saying much about mental illness and the broad, systemic changes that are needed. We hope these same newspapers will ask each and every candidate what they intend to do about the crisis."

But the real focus for NAMI's campaign will be the general election in November and building movements at the state and local levels to advance its Omnibus Mental Illness Recovery Act (OMIRA), which contains eight key elements:

  • Consumer and family participation in planning mental illness services
  • Equitable healthcare coverage (insurance parity)
  • Access to newer medications: i.e., requiring healthcare plans to provide all effective and medically necessary medications
  • Financing assertive community treatment programs, including the evidence-based PACT model
  • Work incentives through Medicaid for persons with severe mental illness
  • Limit the use of restraints only to emergency safety situations
  • Reduction in the criminalization of mental illness, including specialized police training and mental health courts
  • Establish a Mental Illness Housing Assistance Program to provide safe, affordable housing with community-based services

"Taken together, these eight components can move us toward an accountable system for providing recovery-oriented treatment and services to people with severe brain disorders," Flynn noted. "OMIRA's issues also have federal counterparts. They are not our entire agenda, but they at least will establish a national baseline of care that can move the country forward."

In its campaign, NAMI also intends to work in coalition with other groups in the long-term healthcare and disability communities, including the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). Ken Steele, founder of the National Voter Empowerment Project, whom the New York Times twice profiled last year, addressed the Legislative Conference during the opening session.