As any veteran would attest, there is nothing like the test of battle to weld diverse people and ideals into a cause. Provided, of course, that those people and ideas have the resilience to survive adversity, the determination to work through obstacles, and the confidence to continue in the hope that preparation will soon meet opportunity.
In her eighth year as President and CEO of the National Council, Linda Rosenberg credits the organization’s continued growth and its emergence as a more influential voice on Capitol Hill, to a broader “coming together” of people, ideals, and interests among organizations serving the cause of behavioral health.
“We are in a field that, by and large, is on the same page. I never experienced anything other than that in the eight years I’ve been here in DC. From one organization to another, there may be slightly different stands on some things, but I cannot remember any issue where there was tremendous disagreement—at all,” says Rosenberg.
When asked to cite examples of what brought people together, Rosenberg states, “I think that the fight for parity—in mental health and substance abuse treatment—definitely brought people together. And then the fight for the Affordable Care Act, when we realized that we’d have to have parity within the detail of the ACA.” She also cited a coming together around the issue of health homes, accountable care organizations, and concern about care for dual eligibles. “All of us saw that these were good things to try.”
Beyond the stresses of working through legislative and policy issues, Rosenberg says that the field’s bonds have grown as its people and organizations worked through major events, too. “We’ve also come together around terrible, tragic things that have happened by calling for greater access and services—like more evidence-based practices, more school based services, and support for expanding Mental Health First Aid, for example.”
At those times, given the persistent stigma and misunderstanding about mental illness among the general public, she says that the field couldn’t help but learn the importance of speaking with one voice and focusing on a few key messages. Among those messages are “‘that tragedies are not all about people with mental illnesses,’ ‘that people with mental illness are not dangerous, are not violent,’ and ‘that, with treatment, people with mental illnesses can recover.’
“I can’t think of a time when we’ve disagreed about what were and are the right things and the good things to do,” she says. "The we," she adds, includes what she calls “the guilds,” including those who practice social work, psychology, psychiatry, and nursing. It also includes the many professional organizations in the field, each of which fills a special role: “NAMI has always been a leader in grassroots support—no other group has a better ability to call on the grassroots for support than they do. There’s Mental Health America, who’s been exercising a strong voice, built up over a century. There’s ABHW—the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness—and NAPHS—the National Association of Psychiatric Hospital Systems.
“There are also the addiction organizations—like SAAS (State Associations of Addiction Services), and the legal groups. You can’t underestimate the legal side of this. We need groups like the Legal Action Center and Bazelon because what we do, how we respond to a need, is so much shaped by law. Without their influence, you might not see as much effort and enforcement by the Department of Justice around compliance with Olmsted, for example. It’s clear that it takes more than advocacy—it takes advocacy plus legal clout to get things done.”
The field's unity is also reflected in the growing membership of the National Council, many of whose 2,100 member organiztions also belong to other organizations.
“This year is the 50th anniversary year of the Community Mental Health Act—the year when we can look back and celebrate how far we’ve come on issues like recovery,” Rosenberg states, noting that consumer voices will be highlighted in the video that will launch the National Council’s 2013 Conference, held April 8-10 in Las Vegas.
“The conference will celebrate our legacy, but also will be a continuing conversation about all the work that is yet to be done, and what leadership must be prepared to do.” Sounds like a tall order. ■