I get a little tired of any organization beating the same old drum over and over again, especially when the very foundation of their information is factually incorrect. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is such an organization. While I believe in their overall purpose and goals, I strongly disagree with their continuing characterizations and misinformation campaign about mental disorders.

Their misinformation campaign takes many forms and is fought on many fronts. For example, NAMI has arbitrarily categorized certain disorders which they fight hardest for as “severe mental illnesses.” There is no research support to suggest that people who suffer from schizophrenia deserve more treatment and attention than someone suffering from alcoholism, dissociative disorders, or personality disorders. NAMI practices mental health discrimination by focusing on only a subset of mental disorders, while ignoring other equally serious disorders. NAMI suggested recently that a syndicated columnist which had written a column about people with mental disorders was “viciously prejudiced.” Based upon their extreme focus on a handful of mental disorders, I would argue NAMI itself suffers a similar problem.

NAMI’s misinformation campaign is apparent in virtually every press release they issue. “Mental illnesses today are understood to be biological brain disorders, which can be successfully treated and managed at rates even greater than that for heart disease. ” The second part is correct — properly diagnosed, mental disorders can be quickly and effectively treated in most individuals. But the first part directly contradicts the Surgeon General’s own comprehensive report on mental illness.

Under the section titled, “Imaging the Brain,” in Chapter 2, the Surgeon General states, “In retrospect, early biological models of the mind seem impoverished and deterministic — for example, models that held that “levels” of (. . .) serotonin in the brain were the principal influence on whether one was depressed or aggressive.

Neuroscience is far beyond that now (. . .)”

In the section entitled, “Overview of Etiology,” the report states: “(. . . T)he causes of health and disease . . . are the result of an interaction between biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. This is true for all health and illness, including mental health and mental illness.”

In other words, the Surgeon General’s report contradicts NAMI’s characterization of mental disorders as purely or mainly “brain disorders.” They are biopsychosocial disorders, the psychological and social aspects of which NAMI largely ignores.

This isn’t the first time NAMI has been in the middle of criticism of misrepresenting the facts.

According to the Dec. 6, 1999 USA Today front-page article, “The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has “failed in its primary mission to support research into schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness and other severe mental illnesses,” says the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), a leading advocacy group, in a rare public criticism of the agency’s budget.” What NAMI failed to investigate about the NIMH is that they had already budgeted more money for the very disorders they were being criticized for underfunding. One of NAMI’s criticisms had to do with the agency’s funding of AIDS behavioral research.

“Hyman will announce 5-year grants today totaling $100 million to study treatments for schizophrenia, manic depression and adolescent depression. The agency must follow congressional directives, he says, hence the research on AIDS.” So NAMI criticisms are ultimately directed at the wrong people. Congress can set directives for federally-funded agencies, such as the NIMH, and the NIMH must follow them. NAMI should be criticizing Congress for such directives, but the report is completely empty of any Congressional blame. Did NAMI issue a press release congratulating the NIMH on these new grants? Nary a word was peeped from them. USA Today reported that “Torrey calls the new spending a ‘modest improvement.’” Modest? Does Torrey now believe that taxpayer money grows on trees?

NAMI is basically a good organization which misrepresents some facts to try and influence public opinion. I think they can get the same job done without having to misrepresent facts and without having to criticize the very agencies charged with helping the mentally ill.