National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

NAMI Multicultural Action Center Honors Frances Priester a NAMI African American Leader

February 2004


Ms. Priester is an Advocate for the needs of people with psychiatric disabilities. She began her advocacy in 1990 by advocating for safe, decent, affordable housing for herself and others who at the time were living in a Transitional Living Facility located on the Southside of Chicago. Over time, her advocacy has focused on meeting the basic needs of consumers so that they might reach beyond this devastating illness and strive to recover or take back full control of their lives. She has focused on consumer rights, self-determination and full inclusion in the treatment process as well as providing an avenue for the consumer’s voice in the planning, delivery and implementation of mental health policies.

In keeping with her lifetime work on behalf of disenfranchised consumers, Ms. Priester has begun to question the issue of "criminalization" of the mentally ill. Psychiatric clients have been transinstitutionalized from the wards of psychiatric institutions to the cells of jails and prisons. In Illinois and California, the county jails have more consumers than the nations psychiatric facilities on any given day. She has watched as Illinois rolled back its clocks on the forensic consumer by changing the burden of proof for conditional release from the prosecution to the defense. Many well-meaning advocates have begun Mental Health Courts and Jail Diversion programs. All of these are admiral attempts at addressing the systemic issues of incarcerating the mentally ill, yet none are as promising as the Memphis Tennessee model of law enforcement crisis intervention teams that are preventive in nature and practice.

Ms. Priester served as the sole advocate at Elgin Mental Health Center’s Forensic Treatment Program. She began a Consumer/Family Advisory Council composed of forensic clients found not guilty by reason of insanity to address system issues on the forensic units. Prior to this two-year adventure, Ms. Priester served as the sole consumer advocate at Alton Mental Health Center where she worked with forensic, civilly committed consumers as well as 12 community mental health centers. She was the advocate for a collaborative agency-housing corporation designed to meet the needs of consumers in the Mid-East Region of Illinois.

Ms. Priester currently serves as the Director of the Office of Consumer and Family Affairs for the District of Columbia, Department of Mental Health. In this capacity, she must bridge the gap between all stakeholders; family, consumers, providers, policymakers and forge a working unit to address the District’s age old practice of institutionalizing consumers in a web of dependence that requires transitional cushions to ease the current trend of full inclusion and full empowerment and discontinuance of services previously available to all. She has begun this effort by employing consumers and family members to perform meaningful and system-required duties such as conducting satisfaction surveys and reporting findings to all stakeholders. A grievance program has been developed so that consumers have some recourse if they feel that heir rights are being violated. She has promoted the collective efforts of NAMI, the Mental Health Association, Providers and others so that the system of mental health care in the District of Columbia would symbolize true inclusion.

Ms. Priester is joined in her present work by senior staff at the Department of Mental Health: Paul M. Washington, Sharon M. White and Alstephenos Boone without whose assistance, she would not be able to forge forward.