National Alliance on Mental Illness
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NAMI Founder Harriet Shetler’s Legacy

Statement by Michael J. Fitzpatrick
NAMI Executive Director

April 6, 2010

Harriet Shetler, whose wit and tenacious advocacy endeared her to NAMI members across the nation, died March 30 in Madison, Wis. She was 92.

She has often been considered NAMI’s founder—although in fact, she was part of a larger movement.

With Beverly Young, also of Wisconsin, and more than 250 other grassroots leaders from around the country, Harriet convened a meeting in Madison in 1979 that resulted in the founding of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

She went on to serve on the national board of directors, edit NAMI’s first national newsletter and wrote unpublished histories of the first 10 years of the organization and some of its affiliates.

From the Madison meeting, individuals and families affected by mental illness have risen out of isolation, anxiety and anger to become a force to be reckoned with at local, state and national levels—challenging medical assumptions and the mental health care system.

The story of the historic Madison meeting is included in the documentary When Medicine Got It Wrong, which will be aired on many PBS stations in May 2010, during Mental Health Month.

At NAMI’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2004, Harriet shared tales of our early years with humor and emotion—and invoked the spirit of the nation’s broader civil rights movement:

  • "Can you remember Ann Landers' speech at the second NAMI convention in Chicago when [the advice columnist] spent five minutes, to our amazement, telling about all the letters she received stressing the correct way to install toilet paper?"
  • "Will you forget the resourceful board member who solved the problem of no swimming suits by sewing together several napkins borrowed from the dinning room?"
  • "For 25 years we laughed when we could and we cried over the too-early deaths of our children, and we waited for the light. [Moving forward] let’s pull up our socks, and never, ever lose heart, my co-conspirators on this journey."

"We shall overcome someday, deep in my heart, I do believe that!"

Today NAMI says thank you to Harriet, and the thousands of NAMI volunteers and members who have followed her, whether they knew her or not.

Harriet helped provide NAMI’s vision. She has left a legacy.

And she would be the first to say—there’s still much work to be done.  We thank her and all those who are our Harriet Shetlers today, working to build a better future for our children.


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