Alternatives Conference Update: Not the three-eyed monster some would report

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The Alternatives Conference, now entering its 29th year, was at the center of controversy last year in the often heated debate around the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (for brevity, we will refer to this as the 'Murphy bill'). Comments about the conference were often vitriolic, and the name 'Alternatives' was highlighted as an example of wasteful spending by SAMHSA. Conference workshops were chastised for being irrelevant to the needs of individuals with mental illness, and a poor excuse for the sharing of far-fetched treatment and support options for individuals with mental illness.

Alternatives Conference dragged through the mud in Wall Street Journal article
Before two weeks ago, I had never been to the Alternatives Conference. In fact, I had never heard of the Alternatives Conference until a little over a year ago when the Wall Street Journal published a scathing Op-Ed article that slammed the conference as an example of why SAMHSA needed to be reorganized and the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act needed to be passed.

The examples in the Op-Ed piece came across as so egregious as to make anyone wonder how in the world public dollars could be invested in such an endeavor. Of course, after doing just a bit of digging, the truth of the matter became crystal clear. You can read my detailed analysis of the accusations made here.

And now, entering the month of November, the faulty rhetoric about the Alternatives conference is coming out again, both by politicians and pundits alike. Not coincidentally, the vitriol is picking up just as the House Energy Committee begins markup of the Murphy Bill today.

When I wrote the first Morning Zen post on Alternatives, I had to rely on researching the workshops and events at the conference from afar. Now, after attending the 2015 conference, I can write from first-hand experience. Which, by the way, is something I would encourage anyone who writes about the Alternatives Conference in the media to do. Nothing like seeing it for yourself to lend some credibility to your argument.

When I first arrived at the venue, I was greeted warmly and encouraged to take advantage of the many opportunities available. The atmosphere reminded me of the type of family gatherings I remember in the early days of the Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health. For those not familiar with the Federation, in the early days, conference participants included a small number of state and local officials, a few therapists, federal folks, but overwhelming families - many who had never been to a conference before. For those families, attending an early Federation conference was an empowering and legitimizing experience. I had not had that feeling in years until I walked into the convention hall at the Alternatives Conference. This was family. Not necessarily my family (the children's mental health world), but that didn't matter. It was family, and I was welcomed in wholeheartedly.

The workshops were varied and interesting. There was one activity session that sticks in my mind as a poignant metaphor for much of the vitriolic diatribe against this conference. The activity session went most of the day and was designed to engage any participants who wanted, to come in and draw, paint, or do other arts and crafts. I have no idea of the personal stories of the people in the room, but my guess is that many were in various stages of recovery themselves.

This is the type of session that politicians and pundits have railed against as an example of wasteful spending. It is beyond sad how wrong they are.

Watching the joy and activity in a room that felt so safe, I was reminded of my early days in this field, working on a locked ward, running a very similar activity with individuals with the most serious mental illnesses. In that setting, establishing opportunities for normalcy were an important part of the therapeutic milieu. Here, at this conference for individuals in recovery, similar principles were at play. From this most basic level on up, the theme appeared to me to be, you are valued, you are important, you belong.

I have talked to many of the most vocal proponents of the Murphy bill, particularly around the AOT debate. Unfailingly, when away from the spotlight of politics, they have told me that what they would have hoped for most for their child was that they could live in a community that valued them, helped them feel important, helped them feel like they belong.

Another moment from the conference that stands out for me was my interaction with a woman at one of the luncheons. We were sitting at the same table, and as part of the typical introduction, I asked the "What do you do?" question. Her story was amazing. Now the head of a small drop-in center, she recounted to me her many years of going in and out of hospitals, but finally, through a combination of accurate medication and strong family and community support, was able to regain her equilibrium, and eventually start the drop in center. Her goal with the center? Simple - to make space available to those who need a bridge between the most intensive type of service and the life of full independence they one day hope to achieve.

There was so much love and compassion that came from this woman. I asked her if she knew anything about the Murphy bill. "Nope, never heard of it," she said. "You mean like Murphy's soap?" I chuckled and said no, not like the soap. I explained to her that there has been an ongoing discussion about improving mental health services in America, and this was one of the bills that was currently being developed in Congress. I asked her what she would hope for most in a mental health bill. She said, "I don't get too involved in politics, so I don't know. All I know is that there has got to be some place safe for people to go when they get out of the hospital, so they don't have to go back."

Truer words were never spoken. What continues to get lost in the debate about the Murphy bill is that the two ends of the continuum of services for individuals with serious mental illness need each other. It would be unwise just to focus on increasing psychiatric beds and forcing treatment, just as it would be unwise just to focus on recovery. The fact is that there will be times when an individual needs services of the highest intensity. But to only focus on the most intensive services, while at the same time deriding the recovery movement that is there waiting to embrace the individual with serious mental illness and welcome them back into the community, is just plain foolish.

So there you have it, Network faithful. I can now say I have been to the Alternatives Conference. No, it's not the three-eyed monster that it gets portrayed as in the press and the halls of Congress. In my eyes, the conference appears to be one big family reunion of dedicated, compassionate individuals who are trying to make a difference for themselves and those around them. The people attending this conference are not politicians, policy wonks, and high paid lobbyists. They are the people of America.

Congressional members of the House Energy & Commerce Committee might want to remember that as they prepare their speeches for the markup session today and tomorrow.

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Scott Bryant-Comstock
President & CEO
Children's Mental Health Network


  1. Mary Jacksteit's avatar
    Mary Jacksteit
    | Permalink
    Thank you Scott for how wise and open hearted you are! "The full spectrum" seems so obvious. It remains incredible to me the polarization is such that people cannot acknowledge this.
  2. Philip A. Kumin's avatar
    Philip A. Kumin
    | Permalink
    Author's Note: The following article was originally written in 1987. Immediately before the start of the Alternatives '87 Conference, a Constitutional Convention was held for the National Mental Health Consumers' Association.

    Persons whose names I used are in the public domain regarding their status as patients.



    Philip A. Kumin

    There have now been three annual national mental health primary consumer conferences which have been government funded. This year's Conference, (Alternatives '87), was held at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, itself an attractive moderately sized college town located on the Ohio River and surrounded by mountains.

    I should, perhaps, be biased in favor of the Alternatives '85 Conference which I helped to organize here in Baltimore. This was, indeed, an historic occasion. However I would, (at this point,) have to say that probably this year's Conference was as good if not better, (albeit in a somewhat different way,) than our Conference. Alternatives '87 was certainly better than last year's Conference in Cincinnati, where there was tremendous infighting between certain members of each national organization.

    In fact, I think what made Alternatives '87 so unique was the wonderful spirit of respect and acceptance which I feel prevailed there. Rumors were circulating that the National Association of Psychiatric Survivors was officially boycotting the Conference, but these later proved not to be true. In fact there were quite a few N.A.P.S. members there, as well as those who are members of both organizations, and still those who belong only to the National Mental Health Consumers' Association, yet constitute the more left wing faction of that organization. (Here's where I fit in.) In other words, folks, there was a tremendous diversity of political belief again represented this year. And yet there was no fighting, no struggle whatsoever. George Ebert was there, (for whom I felt intense pride,) with his very attractive, (and politically dedicated) wife, whose first name escapes me now. But George was nice! He was terribly pleasant! I absolutely fell in love with the man! They brought this tremendous display of all the classic anti-psychiatry/anti-shock literature and paraphenalia, which they conveniently sandwiched in between a Project S.H.A.R.E. booth and an extensive display that the Mental Health Association of West Virginia put up, and proceeded to do a brisk business. Even a small display, (next to that of the National Mental Health Consumers' Association,) about the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill was erected although this, unfortunately, sat on its own unattended and unmanned, (or unwomaned, what have you,) for some reason.

    Probably the most soul-satisfying benefit of these Conferences each year is the effect they have on newcomers who attend for the first time. If you watch and observe the expressions on the faces of those new participants who are just discovering the self help & advocacy Movement for the first time, their responses are almost spiritual in some way. They are completely blown away by the proceedings, never having known anything like this existed. Even Bernie Elbinger of the Michigan Alliance for Alternatives to Psychiatry, in Detroit, (no conservative, he) admitted for lack of a better word, these Conferences are tremendously, "therapeutic." My roommate was a 41 year old man, (bipolar depressive,) from Portland, Oregon who had been involved in some independent advocacy out there and through his contacts, got wind of the Conference at the last minute, but managed to get some funding to come anyway. We stayed up all night after our first day there, and talked. He was in a near-perpetual state of nirvana, he was so overwhelmed by the profundity of what he was in the midst of.

    The Constitutional Convention went off without a hitch, thanks to the combined parliamentary techniques of chairperson Tom Posey, and assistants Joe Rogers and Jay Centifanti. Although jokes abounded about the United States Constitution taking less time to construct than ours we were, in fact, concluded within the 24 hour period allotted before the start of the Conference. I had, indeed, wanted to be present when the final rollcall was issued on the vote either in favor of, or opposed to, the acceptance of the last position paper drafted in committee. I wanted to be there when Tom Posey slammed his pair of scissors that he was using as a gavel, down on the podium and announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a Constituuuution," at which point the delegates would have all thrown their hats in the air and cheered, as do the plebes each year upon graduation from the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Unfortunately I tired early, and went back to my dormitory room to sleep. But for those portions of the Convention at which I was present there really was, again, such a sense of history being made...

    At this point, the national Movement's most pressing need is for publicity. We are this tremendously profound and historic civil rights movement, (the ultimate one, we say) developing, organizing and growing right under America's nose and yet, no one knows about us. It was tragically humorous when, after the acceptance of the draft position paper for the Finance Committee during the Convention the new chairperson noted, somewhat sadly, that we have no money. We were all terribly pleased in this regard to have Robert Emerick, associate professor of sociology at San Diego State University, with us. Professor Emerick is conducting a survey of political diversity within the Movement, the final results of which he hopes to publish in some social-scientific publication somewhere. Slowly but surely, other facets of the intellectual and academic communities are hearing about us.

    My only wish for future Conferences is that registration and attendance for non-primary consumers be expanded. Salt Lake City in '88!
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