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

November 03, 2015

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

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