CMHNetwork 'walks the walk' on the Alternatives Conference

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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.

The Children's Mental Health Network has passionate followers who are firmly for the Murphy bill and those who are firmly against the Murphy bill. This dynamic is what makes the Network unique. We encourage the sharing of differing views in the hope that we can find consensus on issues impacting families who have children with mental health challenges. The emails I received last year referencing the Alternatives Conference were just as polarizing as the debate around the Murphy bill. Some emails would say, "See, I told you so, Murphy is right." and others would say, "They just don't get it, Murphy is wrong."

Alternatives Conference dragged through the mud in Wall Street Journal article
I have 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.

I'll put this simply - If the Alternatives Conference activities that were described as wasteful spending in newspapers around the country and on the floor of the House of Representatives all of last year are good enough for the Veteran's Administration to endorse and use with our returning wounded warriors with PTSD, then they are good enough for me.

CMHNetwork walks the walk on AOT
Juxtaposed against the accusations of wasteful spending was a call by supporters of the Murphy bill to require Assisted Outpatient Treatment in all 50 states. As with our careful analysis of the charges made about the Alternatives Conference, the Children's Mental Health Network hosted a number of dialogues on the topic of AOT with both supporters and those in opposition.

Our investigation into AOT uncovered a wide range of approaches to the use of civil commitment across the country. This led us to question what exactly the Murphy bill was asking to be put in place. I asked E. Fuller Torrey's organization, Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) to give us what they would consider to be an excellent example of AOT so that we could do a site visit to learn more about what they did. TAC is one of the primary architects of the Murphy bill and has been involved with the Network in all of the dialogues last year.

Supporters and those in opposition of AOT were invited to attend the site visit. Just like the review of the Wall Street Journal article, what we found on the site visit went way beyond the sound bites that you hear in the press or by politicians who are either for or against AOT. You can read about our visit here.

It is our responsibility as advocates to not just accept as gospel what any politician tells us, regardless of what side of the issue you are on. We must do our homework. For when we do, we can change the conversation about what is most helpful for youth and families, not what is most helpful for politicians.

CMHNetwork walks the walk on the Alternatives Conference
I am a firm believer that if you are not willing to embrace and experience what concerns you most then you probably shouldn't be talking about it. Which leads me to the finale of this Zen post: We are going to the Alternatives Conference! Gotta practice what you preach, Network faithful.

I want to invite all of our colleagues and supporters who participated in bemoaning the use of federal funds to help support the Alternatives Conference to attend this year. Let's see what all the fuss is about. Let's dialogue with presenters at this conference and hear from them how they are using alternative approaches to treating and supporting those with mental illness. If you are not willing to do this, then frankly, you shouldn't be using it as an example of what you see as wrong with the mental health system in America.


October 14 - 18, 2015
Memphis, TN

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


  1. Julio Viera's avatar
    Julio Viera
    | Permalink
    I prefer write in my native language (excuse me)

    Creo en la medicina no tradicional. La pregunta es que es tradicional. Si la respuesta es lo que comunmente usamos entonces me gustaría alternar con la alternativa. Si lo que usamos no esta funcionando a la medida que esperamos debemos (y repito) buscar alternativa en alguna herramienta que pueda sustituir o complementar nuestro esfuerzo.

    English translation: "I believe in non-traditional medicine. The question is: what is traditional? If the answer is that it is what we commonly use, then I would like to alternate with the alternative. If what we are using is not working to the degree in which we expect, we must (and I repeat) seek an alternative in a tool that can substitute or complement our effort."

  2. Herb Cromwell's avatar
    Herb Cromwell
    | Permalink
    I’m retiring this fall after 38 years in public mental health, the last 24 working directly with community providers. I know the value of medication, psychiatric rehabilitation, crisis intervention, Assertive Community Treatment and all the other clinical tools of the trade.

    But over the years I’ve come to place equal value on peer support.

    I’ve often attended our state’s version of the Alternatives Conference, a two day annual event organized by On Our Own of Maryland, a dynamic statewide consumer organization. It’s my favorite event if the year. I’m not sure clinicians fully grasp the therapeutic power of peer support and the strength that people in recovery give each other. The fun and friendship don’t hurt either.

    AOT may have a role to play for a small subset of people with psychiatric disablity but my experience is that peer support plays a much larger role. Supporters of the Murphy bill should not give it short shrift.
  3. Tkay's avatar
    | Permalink
    Alternatives Conference is s brilliant way to cut cost on holding conferences. Hope people will come with viable and sustainable alternatives for this work.
  4. Dennis Embry's avatar
    Dennis Embry
    | Permalink
    As a good scientist,I know great discoveries happen by going to the edge of thinking and understanding, not standing in the center of consensus. That is a lesson over and over again in the history of great scientific discoveries and transformations.

    For example, when I first heard about omega-3 fatty acid for the treatment and prevention of mental illnesses about 15 years ago, my first thought was "another alien abduction, vortex and rock crystals story in Sedonna." Then, I read about the first randomized-control trial in 2002 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, which kicked in my inner science nerd to work backwards through the citations to a whole array of very good science that has good beyond my imagination. Others were reading that science—including E. Fuller Torrey sponsored the first randomized longitudinal trial that actually prevents first episode psychosis—now over a 7-year period. It should be noted that Dr. Torrey is a critic of alternatives, but sadly never mentioned his sponsorship of the most extraordinary study in the prevention of major, serious mental illnesses.

    To read more about this "alternative" that now has the consensus support of the American Psychiatric Association plus a huge body of good science (and some rubbish), please click through and read through a large annotated bibliography from the National Library of Medicine

    I hope that Congressman Murphy attends. The worst that could happen is an increase in psychological flexibility, which by the way has large experimentally proven effects on reducing readmission for severe psychosis in a longitudinal, randomized control study by one of my co-authors (statement of conflict of interest), which is already on the NREPP list of evidence-based practices: Sadly, none of the hearings actually acknowledged the rich evidence-based practices with good science that actually help people with serious mental illness—especially when you search NREPP by symptoms not diagnoses.
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