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The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. NAMI has over 1,100 affiliates in communities across the country who engage in advocacy, research, support, and education. Members of NAMI are families, friends, and people living with mental illnesses.


The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill came into being in September 1979 when a relatively small, but very determined, group of families descended on Madison, Wisconsin, with no lesser goal than that of changing the system. Those who came represented the newly developing self-help groups springing up in communities across the country. They came in response to an invitation of the Madison family group and in a matter of a few days they created a structure that came to be known as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Among those in attendance were Bob and Frances Brunkan of Dyersville, Iowa, along with Harry and Sylvia Turner.




by Harriet Shetler


What started out in the 1940’s as tiny candles set against the darkness of unconcern for persons with mental illnesses and their families has in 1986 become a blazing light. The entrance of the family movement into the field of mental illness, combined with the meteoric rise of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, is a grassroots success story of unprecedented proportions.


It is a story of a handful of families in dozens of cities across the country who found each other … it is the story of one small group at a time becoming organized without knowing there was a similar group in any other town or state … it is the story of courageous individuals who braved the stigma of mental illness to come out of the closet in their communities and find other people with the same problem.


Two members of one of the most active family groups, Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Dane County, Wisconsin, based in Madison, brought up the need for a national coalition at the November 28, 1978, business meeting of their board. With the backing of their Board of Directors, Beverly Young and Harriet Shetler were authorized to explore the possibility of inviting representatives from as many groups as they could find to convene at a future date in Madison, with the stipulation that outside funding would be needed.


In January 1979 these two women who had co-organized the group two years earlier sold their idea to Roger Williams, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Extension Mental Health Department. Professor Williams agreed to seek UWEX co-sponsorship of such a national conference if other family groups responded favorably to the invitation and if a funding base could be secured. Bev Young volunteered to serve as general secretary in writing to groups, and Harriet Shetler went after the funding.


The response to the letters of invitation was overwhelmingly positive. Without exception, the other family support groups encouraged moving ahead with the planning process and pledged support in attending the conference. Lorna Miller, a UWEX employee and administrator of Wisconsin’s Title I funds who was supervising an editing project that Harriet was working on, became personally supportive of the idea of convening families of mentally ill persons. The $5,000 grant that was secured from the Higher Education Act, Title I, enabled the Mental Health Department-AMI committee to cover most out-of-pocket expenses and keep participant fees at $10.


AMI members on the committee insisted that expenses for participants be kept to a minimum and that many emerging family group leaders have prominent places on the program. The Dane County group opened its home to any conference participants, and Coordinator Williams kept expenses down by donating his and his department’s time and the conference facilities of UW-Extension.


At the final Sunday morning session, a resolution to incorporate the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill was unanimously adopted.


The conferees went back home to their affiliates on a natural high, feeling pleased with themselves and their newfound friends, happy that they had started something very important in three pressured days. Through the windows of the room where they held their plenary sessions, the 284 NAMI founders had watched the sailboats of the Hoofers Club dart around Lake Mendota. Now they were going home to sail uncharted waters.


What contributed to the success of the organizing conference? The conference coordinator, Roger Williams, after reading all the evaluations, wrote that timing was the most important factor. “It is just within the past one or two years that local groups realized the national scope of this movement and became interested in reaching out to form a nationwide network.”



As all parents know, the birth of a baby is only the beginning! The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill was no exception. With no more than token funds and with no national office, this organization conceived by grassroots small groups scattered from coast to coast had grown up overnight to fulfill the collective dream of the Madison assemblage.


The above was taken from an article written by Harriet Shetler, a NAMI Board Member from 1983 to 1986.



Shirley Starr, President of NAMI from 1980 to 1982 wrote: The weekend in September 1979 that resulted in the formation of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill was a weekend filled with 18-hour work days and the burning conviction that the 284 individuals present were part of a movement for which the right time had come and that each person was no longer alone in confronting mental illness in the family. Madison, Wisconsin, was our birthplace. Washington, D.C., would become the arena in which we would work on behalf of the chronically mentally ill.





In a letter dated May 27, 1991, Frances Brunkan wrote: We attended the Madison meeting along with another couple, Harry and Sylvia Turner, from Dubuque. We returned to Dubuque and began meetings which led to the formation of AMI of Dubuque in 1980.


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