NAMI Fires Director for Survivor Dialog

Submitted by admin on Sun, 12/19/2004 - 23:58

NAMI Fires Director For Survivor Dialog


Posted on Dec 20, 04

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill-Western MA, the area chapter of the national NAMI organization, recently fired their new Executive Director Mary Rives without warning. The firing came after Rives communicated with Freedom Center, the Pioneer Valley's only support and advocacy organization run entirely by and for people diagnosed with severe mental illnesses.

Rives, who formerly worked with Windhorse Associates and is herself a psychiatric survivor, pursued a commitment to respectful dialog and listening between NAMI-WMA and Freedom Center, even if the two organizations have widely different points of view. Freedom Center's Will Hall shared Rives' commitment to dialog, and the two made plans to meet and give each other a fair hearing. NAMI-WMA Board members, however, prevented any such meeting from ever taking place, and instead fired Rives.

UPDATE: Rives' firing was covered in a front-page story in the Springfield Republican newspaper,"Firing Highlights Feud In Mental Health Field." on Feb. 28, 2005.

Below is a statement on the firing by Hall and an interview with Rives.

Will Hall statement on Mary Rives firing:

After Jane Moser's resignation as NAMI-WM President of the Board, I truly welcomed change at NAMI-WM. NAMI-WM and Freedom Center had a contentious and public conflict prior to Moser resigning; she falsely claimed to the Springfield Republican newspaper that Freedom Center was responsible for 2 suicides, which was a libelous and completely untrue attack on Freedom Center's reputation as caring and responsible advocates of informed treatment decisions. With Moser's resignation and Rives' appointment, I hoped NAMI-WM would begin to conduct itself in a civil and professional manner, and we could put this acrimony behind us.

I contacted Ms. Rives by phone after her hiring, and in the course of speaking with Mary it was clear that she represented the NAMI organizational perspective, which is quite different from that of Freedom Center and the survivor movement. However, we "agreed to disagree" on some issues and to further explore possible areas where we agree, such as defending Section 8 funding and ending disability discrimination. In sharp contrast to our encounter with Jane Moser, my phone discussion with Mary was respectful, and Mary and I both agreed that dialog and listening are helpful when group and individuals are in conflict.

While a face to face meeting had not yet taken place, Mary and I did exchange emails and phone messages reaffirming our interest in meeting in person to listen to each others' views. Several months later, Mary phoned to say any meeting could only take place at the NAMI-WM office with several of their board members present. I felt these restrictions were unreasonable, but I was willing to accept them. Soon after this phone call, however, I learned that Mary had been fired without warning or cause.

I am deeply troubled by the consistently anti-consumer, unprofessional, and uncivil behavior of NAMI-Western MA, now reflected by the recent firing of Mary Rives without cause or warning. Freedom Center is a thriving, survivor-run organization committed to recovery that has won awards and wide acclaim. We regularly have 15-20 people at our weekly support groups, hundreds of people in this area have been involved with us, and we represent the views and needs of hundreds more. We are the people diagnosed with mental illnesses whose interests NAMI-WMA claims to represent. We are the people in recovery whose voices need to be heard. Instead, NAMI-WMA has opposed, discredited, silenced, and isolated us. If NAMI-WMA is truly working on behalf of people diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, Freedom Center should not be treated like the enemy. Efforts at dialog and discussion between our groups should not be met with intolerance.

We are ready to meet, share, and listen. As someone who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and who has relatives diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, I have great understanding and compassion for the suffering of family members. I believe we have common ground and room for dialog -- if the leadership of NAMI-WMA will allow it.

-- Will Hall, Freedom Center co-founder

Freedom Center Interview with Rives

What were the conditions under which you were fired by NAMI-WM in September, 2004?

When I reported back to work after a four day national NAMI conference, two NAMI-WM executive board members were at the office upon my arrival. I was told I was terminated "without cause" from the organization. When I asked them why, they said they were not at liberty to tell me, and would only confirm the board's decision. I reminded them that just recently the 3 of us had met and they gave me a glowing job performance evaluation. I asked them to please have the decency tell me what went wrong. But they only repeated themselves sternly and instructed me to pack my things and leave the premises immediately. I told them I needed to retrieve some personal information on the computer at which point the male board member physically blocked my access to the computer, then got on his hands and knees to unplug it completely and stood up with crossed arms stating that I could not bring any files home with me whatsoever.

Being denied access to my personnel file directly violated a Massachusetts employment law listed under General Laws, Chapter 149, Section 52C. I was also denied my request for a written agreement for reimbursement for out-of-pocket business expenses incurred at the conference--expenses for which I was verbally assured I would be reimbursed for prior to the conference. Upon my insistence, the male board member then said, "Let's just get this whole thing over with."

How was this experience for you?

I have never been fired before, but in my advocacy work I have had to occasionally fire people who were exploiting others, and I know there IS a way to go about such a dreadful deed that is kind, honest and respectful of another's integrity. However, the way that I was fired by NAMI was disrespectful, degrading and humiliating. I think they handled it as inhumanely as possible; without notice, without cause, with physical intimidation, and by breaking an employment law.

After you were fired, what kind of support did you receive from within NAMI, if any?

I received calls from important volunteers and members of NAMI-WM who thought highly of me and my work, but who were kept in the dark as to why I was no longer employed there. Upon learning I was fired, one volunteer immediately resigned from her position as peer advocate in protest of their decision. She sent me a copy of her protest resignation letter. A board member of NAMI National called to express his regrets and support, stating that he fully disagreed with NAMI's decision. Numerous NAMI employees on the state level called to express how shocked they were and to offer their support. These wonderful caring people within NAMI (beyond the local affiliate) recognized my contributions to the organization and my dedicated advocacy work. It saddens me that I was disallowed to retrieve a file that contained personal letters and cards from people I had helped, messages which expressed their appreciation and included a top NAMI official who wrote, "NAMI is very fortunate to have someone with your skills and experience working for them" I also received many calls from local collateral service providers I had been working with who were dismayed that I had left, especially so suddenly and under such circumstances. Several of these providers offered to write letters on my behalf.

Were you ever able to find out why you were fired?

Not directly, but by putting the pieces together it became clear I was fired because of philosophical differences (this was confirmed by one board member who revealed what happened at the board meeting where I was voted out). Here is a glimpse at some history which I believe brought out differing philosophies:

NAMI's brochure states that mental illnesses are not curable or preventable. Soon after my participation in an online community discussion about this issue, (and after my positive job performance evaluation), a meeting was called during which I was literally interrogated by Police Desk Sgt. and NAMI-WM Board President, Donald Sicard (who is the replacement for Jane Moser). I was told numerous times, verbatim, "We want to look deep into your eyes and see if you are telling the truth. Are you more Freedom Center or NAMI?" After this demoralizing and dehumanizing meeting, I thought we had moved on to collectively support those affected by psychological disturbances. Little did I know that in my absence the wagons were circling around me for my demise!

What do you think of NAMI's 'there's no cure for mental illness' brochure? Would you have changed it?

Absolutely! I think it directly contradicts NAMI-WM's main message which is that they offer hope and help. In addition, the statement that all mental illness is incurable and unpreventable is simply not true. For example, PTSD can be prevented by not going to combat in Iraq. I am a living example that this statement is wrong, as I have recovered fully from multiple trauma-related mental illnesses that plagued me in my adolescent years. It is hard for many people to accept that recovery is possible when they or their loved ones have not recovered much over the years. (I was even told by one NAMI member--with whom I revealed my personal journey--that I was misdiagnosed and was probably just the "worried well". This person yields a lot of organizational influence and power at NAMI-WM and was instrumental in getting me fired, after which he was elected back into an executive committee role on the board).

I still feel strongly that this gravely misleading NAMI statement warrants a brochure change from a national level to every NAMI affiliate that exists. As you and your constituents know, I offered the assurance that I would look into ensuring that future brochures would more adequately reflect NAMI's hopeful philosophy. As I promised to the community, I looked into how the brochure could be changed. I spoke with my immediate supervisors about it and while I was at the national conference, I made appointments and spoke with several NAMI National board members, one of whom was defensive and the other of whom was very receptive to the feedback and said he would bring it up to the national board. I learned from these meetings that the brochure we are referring to is based on the National NAMI design and cannot be altered by individual affiliates. However, I also found out that local affiliates can create their own brochures, thus making it possible to remove that offensive and misleading statement. My next step as Executive Director was to get the board's approval for a new brochure and proceed ahead with that project in time for their annual outreach project for which they distribute thousands of brochures to the general public.

Why did you want to dialog with Freedom Center?

Good question. I was aware early on that there was lingering friction between the two organizations that needed to eventually be skillfully addressed in order to move on. It seemed clear that both organizations were basing their opinions, feelings, and judgments about the other largely on myths and misunderstandings. I thought I could eventually help to facilitate having a reality based educational experience to dispel at least some of those myths, a "get to know ya" kind of meeting between two passionately committed advocacy groups.

How do you feel about false statements Jane Moser made to the press about Freedom Center, NAMI efforts to cut off $ for statewide consumer grants, their opposition to the Wellness Recovery and Action Plan (a self-help recovery tool promoted by consumers nation-wide), opposition to Freedom Center, and opposition to the film series at Mt. Holyoke College?

None of the above occurred during my directorship at NAMI, with the exception of expressed WRAP opposition by one executive committee board member. (Since my employment ended at NAMI, I have become a certified WRAP facilitator!) This same person insisted I read the series of letters between NAMI-WM and Mt Holyoke College. I was appalled at the inflammatory and attacking nature of NAMI's message and by the absurdity of their opposition to the film series. So I later inquired with the board and gave input about protocols for outgoing letters.

By the way, my understanding was that NAMI advocates for improved institutional conditions. Thus, in response to this person's overeactiveness to the film series, I managed to put a good word in for "One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest", referring to it as a great classic film of our time, an important liberation story that brought to light oppressive conditions in psychiatric hospitals.

Do you see NAMI as undermining efforts at mental health support and recovery?

When I was working at NAMI, there were no attempts to prevent Freedom Center from serving its mission. I see NAMI-WM as providing a lot of support for families and for individuals who are receptive to medication as treatment, fielding and responding to consumer complaints about providers and doing some public policy advocacy. When it comes to being supportive (or at least accepting) of the consumer movement, NAMI does fall short.

Because I was hearing a lot about mental illness exclusively, I had plans to gently introduce the concept of wellness and recovery and cultivate ways to promote mental health at NAMI. I learned this was not welcome when I was instructed to remove the term "mental health" from a job ad. There are many other examples and indicators that suggest NAMI-WM is steeped and stuck in the disease model only. They seem to prefer homeostasis and choose not to accept or explore anything outside of the strictly medical model. Some are afraid anything else will cause their loved ones to flush their drugs down the toilet and become psychotic, even something as tame and sane as the Wellness and Recovery Action Plan, which actually incorporates and supports one's medication regimen!

My experience with NAMI-WM informs me that they do harbor a general disdain, mistrust and possible fear of the consumer movement and thus resist collaborative community advocacy efforts. For example, I attended the Mental Health Day Fair in Greenfield this year for NAMI-WM, and FC's table was two tables over from NAMI's. I remember quite vividly when a key NAMI-WM member asked me how the event was and upon learning that FC was there, she became angry and explicitly said that she felt like complaining to the organizers that FC was even invited to the fair in the first place.

This is the level of animosity that you are dealing with here, and, if I may say so, I get the sense that this sentiment may be shared among FC community toward NAMI-WM. Given whatever valid reasons there may be for upset, I see this dynamic as a pattern of mutual over-reactions where assumptions and judgments are being made about the other without the benefit of direct communication. (And I know both Will Hall and I have tried to build a bridge between NAMI and FC). This way of being between the two organizations has led to the development of having--what seems to me--a fairly polluted adversarial relationship that I see as unproductive. Both parties feel misrepresented and hurt, and it's clear they are at an impasse, and may be for a long time. Meanwhile, being adversarial is an unnecessary distraction from the real work at hand, which for both groups is to advocate for those labeled with mental illness.

My hope is that eventually both parties will be able to set aside their own perceived victimization by the other, forgive, learn about and recognize the good work each group does, accept differences, and cultivate a culture of mutual respect through safe forums for dialogue.

How would you describe the problems within NAMI-WM, what have you done about them, if anything, and what changes do you think are needed?

I have professional training and education in organization development, behavior and analysis. My 6 months as ED for NAM-WM enabled me to get a good picture and grasp on the inner workings of their organization, including its challenges. I have concluded that essentially, NAMI-WM is a deeply troubled and tarnished organization that is struggling in vain to live up to its positive reputation and distorted public image as the largest affiliate in Massachusetts.

The board of NAMI-WM consists mostly of elder senior citizens, many of whom are rather provincial minded and have difficulty retaining directors, young members and people of color. The majority of NAMI-WM's board consists of family members of people with "severe mental illness". Out of a Board of 16 members, there is one psychiatrist (possibly 2 now) and only one identified consumer. There are NO people of color even though Holyoke, MA has the largest per capita population of Hispanics in the state. In addition, Springfield, MA has large communities of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians. During my tenure as ED, I was in the process of launching a Latino and African American Outreach Project, for which I received absolutely NO logistical or moral support from the board. My creativity and ingenuity were only welcome when it came to saving or making them money, both of which I succeeded in doing.

In terms of their membership, as of September, 2004, it had been swiftly and steadily declining, decreasing from over 800 members to less than 500 members in less than a year. I was receiving calls on a weekly basis from members asking to have their membership cancelled. Upon being asked why, several people stated that they were frustrated or disappointed to see NAMI taking a strictly exclusive medical model approach to mental illness and they did not like the one-sidedness of articles presented in newsletters (prior to my tenure there). Most of the people I spoke with were consumers, the majority of whom told me directly that they did not feel that a climate of support for consumers was cultivated within NAMI-WM.

Accessibility is another major issue facing the organization. NAMI-WM is out of compliance with American Disabilities Act and they offer no reasonable accommodations. The office is not handicapped accessible because it is on the second story with only a steep set of stairs to enter the premises. There is no other way up! Many of the elderly and obese board members have great difficulty climbing these stairs for meetings or to volunteer. Also, several consumers have called to complain about the facility's lack of handicapped accessibility and geographic isolation.

NAMI-WM is mandated to serve the 3 counties of Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin and be accessible to consumers and people with physical disabilities. In actuality, NAMI-WM serves only board-selected areas of Hampden County. The office is located at a remote site south of the city of Springfield that is not on a bus line, rendering it virtually impossible for nearly all consumer members to access. Right before I was fired, board members were seriously considering eliminating outreach to other communities and requiring the ED to be strictly based in the office. This would effectively curtail all outreach to other communities, a broader base of consumers, and mental health professionals and agencies. As we are all well aware, communities of color and people who live in poverty are often disproportionately affected by mental illness and experience far greater challenges regarding access to mental health services and culturally competent care. With enormous minority and low-income communities within its catchment area, NAMI-WM has unequivocally ignored these historically underserved populations, choosing as a chapter to cater largely to the families of white community members who reflect the (entirely Caucasian) make-up of the NAMI-WM Board.

Unfortunately, NAMI-WM consistently fails to solve conflict through inquiry and neglects to incorporate best business practices. The prevailing culture of NAMI-WM prevented them from adequately discussing the issues and mapping the problem. Instead, they are repeating a pattern of authoritarian, dogmatic leadership. It is easy to observe that they prefer things not to change and instead choose to remain in a defensive, limited-learning organizational pattern. Given their conflicted vision and other deeply rooted organization problems, it is no surprise that NAMI-WM has been through 3 Executive Directors in less than 2 years!

Major changes in the form of a complete organizational overhaul are needed at NAMI-WM. They need to learn resolve their organizational problems effectively and productively, become more ethical in their business practices, adapt to changing times and the diversity of people's needs and ways to meet them. This involves walking their talk and offering true and reality-based hope, not helpless resignation to hopeless surrender of terminal illness and the imposed limitations therein. In addition, working with the consumer movement rather than against it would further their cause and help to regain their integrity (or at least not undermining it). This is possible! They have such potential but too much dead wood that is part and parcel of the old guard, so to speak...I'm afraid it may take a whole new generation at the helm of the NAMI-WM board first.

In closing, I would like to see the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Western MA become more ethical and hope that they will be held accountable for their fear-based, unprofessional behaviors. I hope that NAMI-WM will eventually look inside themselves to locate their own mental models and assumptions and make necessary changes at long last. If they are unable or unwilling to do this themselves, then I hope they will be forced to fold for the higher good of the community.


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