Conference on mental illness will have diverse agenda

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter


photoPeggy McCarthy, executive director of NAMI Southwest Washington.

If you go

What: National Alliance on Mental Illness 2014 conference.

When: Aug. 15-17.

Where: Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay, 100 Columbia St.

Cost: $185 for NAMI members, $220 for nonmembers. Groups coming far distances can qualify for a discount. $100 at-the-door cost for Saturday only. or


• National Alliance on Mental Illness Southwest Washington, 8019 N.E. 13th Ave., 360-695-2823,

The statewide conference on mental illness that's coming to Vancouver next weekend will be totally serious and really fun.

Serious because the theme is "Destigmatizing and Decriminalizing Mental Illness." Volunteers and professionals who work for the Southwest Washington office of NAMI, the grass roots group National Alliance on Mental Illness, told The Columbian that they've been alarmed to hear — and experience firsthand — increasing incidence of mentally ill people being treated like dangerous criminals when they are in crisis and seeking help.

As a result, Executive Director Peggy McCarthy said, this branch of NAMI has dived into the Clark County Jail for the first time, launching support groups for inmates and training sessions for staff. "My goal is for the Clark County jail to be a model for the nation," McCarthy said. Clark County already has a mental health court, she pointed out, but NAMI is now working more diligently than ever to make sure that low-level offenders with mental illness are diverted there rather than just being tossed in jail.

Local officials like District Court Judge Darvin Zimmerman, Prosecutor Tony Golik, jail chief Ric Bishop and Vancouver police Sgt. Kathy McNicholas will lead discussions on local innovations, legal problems, jail facilities and the value of mental-illness training for law enforcement and first responders. They'll be joined by speakers from across the state, including Supreme Court Justice Mary Fairhurst and Dr. Daniel Lessler, the state's chief medical officer. There'll also be panels on fighting the stigma of mental illness in schools, jails and other community settings.

The three-day conference is aimed at professionals but is open to the public too, McCarthy said. It's set for Aug. 15-17 at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay, 100 Columbia St. The price is $185 for NAMI members and $220 for nonmembers. Groups coming far distances can qualify for a discount. Visit

For Saturday-only attendance, McCarthy said, registration at the door is $100.

Fun too

The conference will offer plenty of fun too. On Friday evening there'll be a bus ride over to the jail's Work Center for a "typical corrections holiday meal," McCarthy said, featuring live music and the on-point comedy of David Granirer and his "Stand Up For Mental Illness" comedy players (, who will talk about their lives and their discovery that laughter really is the best medicine.

Saturday morning begins with an "endorphin-producing" walk along the Columbia River, McCarthy said; On Saturday night there's a dinner barbecue with music by the Blues Ranch Band of Winthrop and Tom Mann.

Throughout the conference you'll be able to view a NAMI art show at the Red Lion featuring original artworks by people with mental illness and their families. There'll even be voting for Best of Show, Best Stigma Buster, Most Creative, Most Humorous and Most Inspirational. Visit for the rules and an entry form. Contact Lyn Pattison at NAMI SWWA at 360-693-2823 or via email at if you're interested in showing your artwork.

NAMI reboot

McCarthy was first contacted about taking over as interim executive director for the local NAMI branch about two years ago, as previous leader Janice McKenzie faced a diagnosis of terminal cancer. McCarthy was hired as permanent executive director in September 2013; McKenzie died early this year. McCarthy said the organization had faltered a bit while McKenzie attended to her health.

McCarthy was a research immunologist at the University of California San Diego until she heard entrepreneurship calling, she said. She earned an MBA and worked in the pharmaceutical industry before founding her own firms, McCarthy Medical Marketing and Innovative Medical Education Consortium. She has served on numerous boards and committees convened by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute; she's the co-author of a celebrated book on lung cancer.

McCarthy said she intends to bring scientific standards to everything NAMI Southwest Washington does. NAMI now always does exit assessments of people who take its training sessions to see what they've absorbed and what they thought of the experience.

“I want this NAMI evidence-based and outcomes-based,” she said. Being able to prove the effectiveness of NAMI programs is the key to winning community support and getting grant funding, she said. “We don’t have the community support we’d love to have. We want people to know what’s going on with us.”

McCarthy emphasized three key NAMI programs:

• Strive is a step-by-step educational and peer-support program for people in recovery from mental illness that covers everything from the inner working of the brain to practical tools for dealing with stress and depression, bullying and bad habits.

• See Me sends out a panel of people with mental health diagnoses to describe what their lives and diagnoses are like. First responders like police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians have profited the most from the knowledge and "humanizing effect" of these presentations; employers, churches, service clubs and even family members of those with mental illness have also learned a lot from SEE ME, McCarthy said.

• Homefront is a new program for the family members of veterans with mental health conditions. It's aimed at helping care for whole family as well as the person with the diagnosis.

These are just a few of NAMI Southwest Washington's programs and groups, many of which meet monthly, weekly or even more often than that.