Speaker Raises Questions About NAMI's Values, Future Direction


Members polarize over controversial statements contradictory to organizationıs espoused values.


By Steve Harrington, M.P.A., J.D.



       E. Fuller Torrey is a persuasive speaker. But his June 23, 2007 speech and the response of the highly enthused audience that received it should sound an alarm regarding the culture and values of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and its affiliates.

Torrey used extreme anecdotes and distorted and uncited data to support his premise that persons with severe mental illnesses cost society much in terms of treatment and criminal activity. Torrey called for a return to long-term treatment and easy involuntary commitment of persons with a mental illness. He vilified mental health professionals as "civil-libertarian liberals" and judges who scrutinize testimony.

       Torrey advocated involuntary hospital commitment not just for those who represented a risk to the well-being of themselves or others, but virtually anyone who acted strangely. He lamented that it can take hours of waiting in a courtroom to have someone involuntarily committed but can be discharged in "ten minutes."

Throughout his presentation, Torrey extolled the virtues of medications and stated repeatedly that people should be forced to take medications. He also advocated for changes in healthcare information privacy laws to make such information more readily available. While he acknowledged that other interventions were part of the overall treatment strategy, Torrey advocated withholding some of these interventions if persons refused to admit they had a mental illness or failed to comply with a prescribed medication regimen.

Torrey's presentation was in stark contrast to other sessions offered at the NAMI 2007 National Conference. Other sessions were hopeful, compassionate and recovery focused. Torrey, however, abandoned such notions in favor of easy answers to complex problems. He said the problems of homelessness, crime, and expensive treatment can be best solved with forced treatment and punitive approach. Such treatment, he argued, is the best liberty because it frees the afflicted person from the pain of mental illness.

In his presentation, Torrey pridefully noted that he was personally responsible for the adoption of various laws restricting the freedoms of persons with a mental illness. He chided state NAMI affiliates who opposed or did not strongly support his efforts and accused them of ³selling out² to corporate or government interests. Any person—or organization—that disagrees with his views is inherently fraudulent, Torrey implied. One must wonder if Torrey views NAMI as corrupt as the organization has been a leading advocate of health insurance parity—a measure Torrey has opposed.

Torrey failed to provide citations for his assertions, and with good reason. The unsubstantiated and doubtful statistics he used to support his positions are clearly contradicted by competent and compelling professional studies, including research showing forced treatment is extremely expensive does not result in recovery.

Although NAMI should be commended for offering exposure to differing perspectives, Torrey has had repeated opportunities to express his disturbing, panic-fostering views. Most frightening was the reaction of the approximately 1,000 attendees at the session. Torrey received repeated ovations and during the following question-and-answer period, those ovations continued as audience members praised his viewpoints. A single consumer who asked Torrey to reconsider the value of civil liberties was met with stark silence from the audience.

Torrey unabashedly revealed that his sister was committed to a psychiatric facility and would not be discharged as long as he lived. The audience spontaneously applauded his dedication to such oppression. This comment alone is disturbing because it reflects pride in his role in depriving his sister of basic human rights regardless of her current or future condition. It also may shed some light on the formation of Torreyıs harsh perspective.

Torrey's presentation style was reminiscent of Adolf Hitler's approach to the German people before and during World War II. Hitler, too, advocated forced treatment of persons with a mental illness. He, too, argued they—and society—would be better off isolated in facilities and forced to undergo treatment. That isolation and treatment resulted in the mass executions of and gruesome experimentation on hundreds of thousands of persons with mental disabilities. Many of whom were identified by others as simply "acting strangely."

Indeed, this is an extreme and perhaps overstated comparison, but there are other similarities between Torrey and those in history who have advocated the abdication of basic human rights.

Hitler, Mussolini, Napoleon, and some Roman emperors also created adversaries as scapegoats for society's ills. Intellectuals—including psychiatrists, social researchers, and lawyers—were among those sent to concentration camps and executioners because they advocated for civil liberties and reason. Torrey, in much the same way, vilifies these same groups because, like the framers of the U.S. Constitution, they value personal freedoms. Like Torrey, other oppressive leaders have cast those with opposing views as virtual criminals.

Torrey's repeated presentations at NAMI national conferences and rejection of accepted research on mental health treatment calls into question the NAMI organizational culture. Some NAMI affiliates have worked hard to bring consumers into their local organizations. But when NAMI officials and members fall at the feet of Torrey, consumers rightfully feel disrespected and ponder the contrast between the espoused values of the organization and an uncertain agenda.

During Torrey's presentation, about a dozen consumer members left in obvious disgust. Some conference attendees preferred to boycott the presentation. During the conference-planning stages, when NAMI was asked by some consumers to avoid yet another torrent of Torrey views, they were told the organization invites diverse opinions.

If this were truly the case and the organization was not pandering, then we would see repeated, high-profile presentations by such organizations as Mind Freedom or the Church of Scientology which believe psychotropic medications of any sort are harmful. Or we would see representatives from some Native American tribes that believe mental illnesses do not exist at all or representatives from the faith community demonstrating an exorcism to withdraw the devil from persons with a mental illness. Indeed, such a demonstration would attract a large audience and at the same time present a different perspective.

The argument that NAMI conferences are a forum for diverse opinions fails each time Torrey is free to torment consumers with intolerance and his humiliating and oppressive speech. The polarizing effect of Torrey's repeated presentations is a danger to the organizational health of NAMI and is counterproductive to the good work the organization has accomplished and endeavors to perform in the future.

If NAMI is to move forward, the organization must have the courage to define its values and express those values in the speakers it selects. Torrey's repeated and high-profile appearances at NAMI events are an implied endorsement of his views. Torrey has widely published his perspectives and a single appearance at a NAMI national conference would have been sufficient.

It is time for NAMI to decide if it will dedicate itself to its stated mission and values or continue pandering to a diverse constituency, some of which are merely mesmerized by the notion there are unrealistically simple answers to complex issues. The organization simply cannot be all things to all people and must adhere to its bylaws or adopt new ones.

If the organization endorses (implied or expressed) a restrictive, medical model that violates human rights in a manner found only in the most oppressive nations as advocated by Torrey, then it should not expect support from the millions of persons diagnosed with mental illnesses who recover each year. Other stakeholders, including government entities, may also abandon NAMI for a more reasoned approach that respects human dignity.

On the other hand, NAMI can still present opposing views but also reap the benefits of adopting a recovery culture—one that is supported by true scientific evidence and not encumbered by stigmatizing hyperbole.


Steve Harrington is a NAMI member, consumer of mental health services, family member of a person receiving mental health services, former lawyer, author, and recovery advocate. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The views expressed in this article are his alone.


From Email correspondence June 6, 2007