“What Do You Know About NAMI?”

There are many wonderful mental health organizations doing great work all around the world. So, when you single one out for praise, you run the risk of ticking off all the others.

I’ll take that risk, because I want to recognize the many fine efforts of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org). NAMI is near and dear to my heart as I’ve had the privilege to work with my local and state chapters very closely for many years.


NAMI’s roots began with Harriet Shetler of Madison, Wisconsin, and her son Charles, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. One of Harriet’s friends introduced her to Beverly Young, whose son carried the same diagnosis.

The story goes (according to Harriet’s family) that the two women met for lunch in 1977 and they hit it off immediately. They decided to convene a meeting for parents with similar concerns, which 13 people attended.

Harriet suggested the group be called the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, or AMI, which means “friend” in French. They soon enrolled 75 members. Not long after, they became aware of a similar group in California. Harriet then decided to organize a national conference, and 284 people representing 29 states attended in the fall of 1979. By the end of the conference, a national group had been formed, named and financed.

Things to Know

In the more than 35 years since its founding, NAMI has grown and flourished. Over 200,000 current members include people with mental illness, their friends and family, and professionals. Dr. Steven Hyman, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, called the alliance “the greatest single advocacy force in mental health.”

As I’ve worked with NAMI over the years, I’ve really come to appreciate how worthwhile their initiatives are. Let’s take a moment to review some of the many services and programs that make NAMI such a terrific organization.

1) Reach

With their national headquarters in Arlington, VA, NAMI now has over 1000 state and local affiliate chapters. While the larger chapters are in urban centers, many active groups are also found in rural areas. Many colleges and universities now offer NAMI campus groups for students. This widespread network makes it easy for someone to find a nearby chapter. The accessibility of NAMI’s programs and services is a real strength and its wide reach is unmatched among mental health organizations.

2) Advocacy

NAMI has a well-developed public policy and advocacy program at both state and Federal levels. Recent legislative priorities have centered around military and veterans’ mental health, child and youth programs, increased funding, research and services for mental illness, and decriminalization of mental illness, just to name a few.

3) Education

NAMI’s website offers extensive educational resources about mental health conditions, warning signs for mental illness, statistics on the prevalence and impact of mental illness, treatment options, coping strategies, fact sheets, and much more. The organization’s Information Helpline fields over 70,000 calls per year.

4) Support

NAMI’s “Find Support” page provides a wealth of useful tips and resources. Information is offered on how to find a mental health professional, living with a mental health condition, plus support strategies for family members and caregivers. Helpful materials are provided for numerous groups including teens and young adults, ethnic minorities, veterans and active duty military, and LGBTQ individuals.

5) Classes, Presentations and Groups

NAMI really shines with their educational programs, presentations and support groups. I have heard several people say the programs were “life-changing” and that they literally saved their relationship or their family. There are numerous options, including:


  • Family to Family – education about mental illness for families & caregivers
  • Basics – education about mental illness for parents of children & adolescents
  • Peer to Peer – recovery education for anyone with a mental health condition
  • Homefront – family education for military service members & veterans
  • Provider Education – education for mental health care providers
  • Smarts for Advocacy – training to help people become effective mental health advocates


  • Ending the Silence – in-school presentation for middle and high school students
  • In Our Own Voice – for the general public on mental illness & recovery
  • Parents & Teachers as Allies – for school personnel about early warning signs & intervention

Support Groups:

  • Connection – support group for people living with a mental health condition
  • Family Support Group – support for families & caregivers of people with mental illness

6) NAMIWalks

NAMI raises money through community “NAMIWalks” throughout the country. These annual events take on the air of a festival as consumers, families, and providers join together to walk, have fun, raise awareness about mental health and improve services for those whose lives are impacted by mental illness.

7) Get Involved

At its heart, NAMI has always been a grassroots organization led by people with the lived experience of mental illness and their friends and families. NAMI offers many ways to get involved, as a group facilitator, class leader, walk team organizer, or just by sharing your personal recovery story with others.  Consider taking this next step to sign up as a NAMI volunteer. Both you and the people you help will benefit from the experience.

Ask This Question

If you know anyone who has a mental illness (and you do, trust me), ask them, “What do you know about NAMI?” If you know a friend or family member of a person with mental illness, ask them the same question. Many people may have heard of NAMI, but don’t know much about it and have never made contact. Others (and far too many) have never heard of NAMI at all. Some of the lucky few you will ask not only know about NAMI, but are already loyal fans.

Whatever the response, take a minute to tell them about how helpful NAMI’s services and supports are, and encourage them to check out nami.org or call their local chapter to find out more. Let them know NAMI’s services and programs are all free of charge. Afterwards, pat yourself on the back for doing something really helpful and caring for someone else.

Here’s a question: Do you know someone who could benefit from NAMI’s programs and services? Please leave a comment. Also please consider subscribing to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!

  • Marcie Timmerman

    Such a great article covering a lot of information in a short space. Thanks for all that you do to help NAMI Lexington, NAMI on Campus at UK, and other NAMIs throughout!

  • My son has childhood onset schizophrenia and NAMI has helped us with support, service referrals, and family to family.

  • lpogliano

    Ok in 40 years of their stellar advocacy we now have more than a million homeless people and another million in prison. Are you kidding me? NAMI has established PEERS as virtually medically capable of providing all the help you need dealing with a serious brain disease. It’s ludicrous. Their leadership has sold out! The most severely affected are denied an existence, left tosomehow also ridiculously be able to choose treatment. NAMI kicked out my friend whose psychotic son killed a policeman. She was told she couldn’t facilitate F2F or teach the craft program she started for them.

  • Diane Rabinowitz

    Yes, NAMI is the first organization I turned to (on recommendation from a friend) when my son was hospitalized after his first psychotic break, which blossomed into schizophrenia. I suppose I received some helpful information from the family to family class, but as there is no real cure for schizophrenia, and the current health system does not treat it medically, I was adrift. I think NAMI should go back to calling itself AMI–I like the name (“friend” in French). “Alliance for the Mentally Ill” at least sounds like you’re standing up for someone, while National Alliance on Mental Illness does not sound like much.

  • lpogliano

    Is the author trying to get a board position?

  • Mary Ann Renz

    The original NAMI was
    the best that ?stayed focused on the original mision set by the founders of the Nationl Alliance For The Mentally Ill the original name. That mission to help the most seriously ill who could not help themselves due to lack of insight. The name NAMI was adoped by a vote @ the 1997 national convention in Albquerabe, New Mexico. It passed by 87% of the vote. It was felt by adoping this it would make us the one very large origaization that we had become and all states would become NAMI state name and we would all benefit from any public statements, ads, or campaign from national to state and local chapters or support group. I am proud to have been part of that early NAMI. Being a part of the group to first estaish a NAMI Missizippi. This was the original NAMI the best NAMI.

    Today’s NAMI longer supports that original mission addressing the needs of those who are the most seriously ill. Many of us who were a part of early NAMI are quite disheartened by the new NAMI. Not being out front leading the way on Congressman Tim Murphy’s House Bill “Helping Families in a Mental Health Crisis Act “. Peer to Peer
    groups coaching those who are seriously ill to avoid treatment. Family to Family changed to teach medication not necessary only therapy. The original members are mostly parents/sipplings who are direct careivers who believe in the original NAMI. Many of us are watching to see where NAMI goes and in the mean time have jointed Treatment Before Tragedy who support Congressman Tim Murphy’s House Bill “Helping Families in a Mental Health Crisis Act” 100%. With all the knowledge gained and the techology that allows scientists to look into the brain today should be better and treatment easier to access. It is a tragedy that we know so much more and it is even more diffucult to get treatment then ever. State Hospitals are not the Asylums of the 30’s thru mid 80’s. My son received good humane treatment because of all that had been learned from reserch. A tragedy that so many have been closed. They are so much better than jails, prisons where they can receve good humane teament. They need to be able to stay long enough to be stablized on medication which is not a exact science and takes at least 3 weeks.


  • Jim Buchanan

    I have *never* suggested that *anyone* in one of my Peer to Peer classes avoid treatment! It is an insult to suggest that this is common! I’ve never heard anyone in my local or state NAMI to suggest that medication is not a very important art of recovery. I’m tired of people saying that NAMI is irrelevant to people with serious mental illness NAMI has literlely saved my life,and many others.

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