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Virginia Tech, Stigma Concerns Open NAMI Convention

June 20, 2007

The recent tragedy at Virginia Tech in which one student with severe mental illness killed  32 students and professors, and the stigma surrounding mental illness generally, were on the minds of many NAMI leaders as they arrived in San Diego on June 20 for their annual convention.

In a workshop with standing room only, consumers and family members discussed whether the Virginia Tech tragedy will result only in a backlash that leads to further discrimination and exclusion, or instead will lead to sweeping changes in the mental healthcare system.

Concern over stigma was heightened by a front-page story on Tuesday in the New York Times titled “States Face Decisions on Who is Mentally Fit to Vote.” NAMI responded to media calls on this issue as the convention opened. One live, hour-long call-in discussion was broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio.  

Discussion of Virginia Tech included the President’s Task Force Report on the tragedy. Last week, NAMI called the report a “disappointment,” in that it simply repeated much of what NAMI has been saying for years, and covered much of the same ground as another presidential report in 2003.

“We don’t need any more commissions or task forces. We know what to do,” said NAMI executive director Mike Fitzpatrick, who will put Virginia Tech in perspective during the convention’s opening plenary session on Thursday relative to the theme “Building Our Movement, Building Our Future.”

Last year, NAMI issued a landmark report that graded each state’s mental healthcare system, reflecting the President’s 2003 New Freedom Commission Report on Mental Health. The national average was D.

The same week as the Virginia Tech shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was beginning an investigation of the Georgia state hospital system, in which 115 deaths have occurred over five years--an average of 23 a year--based on neglect, abuse, or substandard care.

As Senator Robert F. Kennedy observed after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, “there is a violence that is slower but just as deadly and destructive as a gunshot or bomb. It is the violence of institutions, indifference, inaction, and slow decay.”

“That is the kind of violence that too long has marked our mental healthcare system,” Fitzpatrick said. “Failures inside a fragmented system. Failures of will by governors and legislatures. Everyday, we confront the violence of a mental healthcare system that gets a D as the national average.”

The 2007 NAMI National continues through Saturday, June 23. Additional coverage and photos are available on the NAMI Web site.

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