NAMI Math

Image Description: A profile of a person’s face on their nose rests the NAMI logo. Their face is in front of a white background with large red text. The red text reads “Honey, I shrunk the NAMI.” Next to this image is an image with text that reads “NAMI Nightmares” above that text is a bird claw and next to it is a screaming mouth with red lipstick.

By: Sera Davidow

75% of all mental illnesses begins by 24.

Nearly 75% of all people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder are women.

75% of people experience at least one episode of dissociation in their lifetime.

When I Google “75% NAMI” these are the ‘fun facts’ – full of nonsense and as misleading as ever – that fill my first page of results. Unsurprisingly, they are all generated by the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s website, Facebook, or Twitter feeds. It’s not until about halfway down the second page that I start to see something else: 

75% of NAMI National’s donations (comprising the bulk of its overall budget) are funded by pharmaceuticals.

That’s not news. It is a much-quoted fact that began circulating in 2009 following an inquiry led by Iowa Senator Charles E. Grassley. The thing is that, while people still make that claim, it’s no longer true. This could easily sound like the lead in to an apologist’s piece about how NAMI has gotten its act together, and started to more genuinely live up to their claim that they are the “largest grassroots mental health organization” in the country (whatever on earth that would actually look like). 

Image Description: An image of a purple square with black text. The text reads NAMI Song Alkermes. Allergan. Boehringer Ingleheim. Genetech. Lundbeck. Neurocrine. Ostuka. PhRMA. Sunovion. Novartis. Novo Nordisk. Pfizer. Vanda. Takeda. Merck. Teva. Johnson & Johnson. Supernus. Eli Lilly. Janssen Bristol Myers Squibb. Sage. Acadia.

Nope.

NAMI clearly invests a great deal in their website. They have posted a 6,222-word, 15-page ‘Terms of Use’ statement (far too much of it all in caps, rendering it nearly unreadable) to prove just how important they are (but also how they’re blameless if you don’t like it). Fortunately, this also means all their financial statements, tax returns, and audits are now available for all to see, as well. From that, I’ve been able to surmise that it is absolutely true that NAMI has dramatically reduced the percentage of (at least visible) donations that come from pharmaceutical companies. In fact, a quick review of their 2020 Corporate Sponsorship listings suggests that Big Pharma makes up only about a quarter of the organization’s donations nowadays. However, to stop there would be misleading.

While gifts and grants from pharmaceutical companies comprised only about 25% of NAMI’s total donations, those same corporations made up 46% of the overall donor list. Meanwhile, Big Pharma accounted for 65% of those who donated more than once in 2020, and 100% of those who donated more than two times. Additionally, 75% of the pharmaceutical companies that donated last year also donated the year prior as compared to around 18% of non-Pharma donors who were repeats from 2019.

None of this even begins to touch the fact that few of us have either the time or resources to dig into the historical intersections and hidden relationships inevitably plaguing some of the family foundation donors and other corporate sponsors listed. My data grab also does not account for the reality that several other repeat donors are healthcare providers, researchers, and similar (Magellan, Anthem, Myriad, Neuronetics, BIO, and so on), all of whom are more than a little intertwined with pharmaceuticals, too. It also can’t even begin to touch the other ways in which pharmaceuticals may be supporting or working with NAMI behind-the-scenes and that will never show up on any financial report. (See ‘Back to Basics: What’s Wrong with NAMI’ for information on past instances of this nature.)

In 2020, the single largest donation to NAMI National came from the estate of one Celeste Clement and totaled $1,668,276.80. It seems unlikely – given the circumstances – that Ms. Clement will be a repeat donor. I don’t bring this up to be crass. Rather, it highlights a key point: The total percentage of NAMI donations coming from pharmaceuticals versus other sources matters significantly less than to whom they feel beholden over time in order to maintain relationships and keep the funds flowing. That percentages are skewed by the occasional large donation – or periodic gifts from the Game Show Network and Lululemon Athletica – matters very little when it comes to lobbying efforts or whether or not NAMI will continue to feel compelled to convince US citizens that “mental illness is just like diabetes” (and therefore, you better take your insulin, kids!).  Frankly, I find people who are fighting to make NAMI somehow “better” pretty perplexing. I’m fairly certain all they’re managing to do is teach organizational leadership how to be more covert with their harms. These people often speak in ‘if-you-can’t-beat-them-at-least-try-to-make-them-a-little-less-bad’ terms, and are defeatist at best.

Image Description: A profile of a person’s face on their nose rests the NAMI logo. Their face is in front of a white background with large red text. The red text reads “Honey, I shrunk the NAMI.”

Meanwhile, I’m dreaming of the day when NAMI is nothing but history, or at least shrunk down to bite-sized. I know the capitalist deck is stacked against us, but where have all the fighters and truth-speakers gone? Have our loudest voices all died off, been shouted down, become dependent on our oppressors for their paychecks, or walked away in disgust? Here’s to hoping that the revival of Madness Network News will let us find our collective way back to ‘fight’ again.

Sera Davidow (she/her) is a White person with light red hair. She is standing in front of a light tan background.

Sera Davidow has been a part of the Wildflower Alliance ( home of the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community) leadership team since its visioning process, serving as its Director since it became funded in 2007. She is also a founding member of the Hearing Voices USA Board of Directors, a filmmaker, and a regular blogger for Mad In America as well as a mother of two. Sera identifies as a survivor of trauma, including traumatic experiences both within and outside of the mental health system.

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