Laurie Flynn had been the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) for less than a month when her 17-year-old daughter attempted suicide in 1984. Her daughter spent 30 days in a Washington, D.C., hospital.
“When a loved one has been in the mental hospital, nobody brings you a casserole,” Laurie said by way of explaining people’s reaction to mental illness versus physical illness. “There was so much shame and stigma at the time.”
Compounding an already stressful situation, Laurie quickly realized metropolitan Washington had insufficient mental health resources, including a scarcity of child and adolescent psychiatrists. And despite having excellent health insurance, her family faced huge medical bills.
The insurance company covered only 50 percent of her daughter’s mental health treatment rather than the 80 percent typically covered for other types of medical treatment. Likewise, it put a lower cap on what it would spend on mental health treatment.
Her daughter’s mental illness personalized for Laurie the inequities and deficiencies in the mental health system and inspired her impassioned work to reform the system. Although her daughter now leads a successful life, she first had to overcome many systemic roadblocks.
“It makes one quite angry to see discrimination against vulnerable people who have a mental illness they didn’t ask for and can’t help,” Laurie said. “Families either had to go bankrupt taking care of their loved ones or put them out on their own.”
As executive director from November 1984 to December 2000, Laurie grew NAMI from a small, grassroots organization with a staff of five, including herself, to the nation’s most powerful mental health advocacy organization. Under her leadership, NAMI’s advocacy focused on expanding access to mental health resources through Medicaid, mental health research, and parity for mental health treatment.
She played a critical role in crafting and championing the Mental Health Parity Act and was on hand to witness President Bill Clinton sign it into law in 1996. Likewise, she advocated for the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and stood by as George W. Bush signed the legislation in 2008. This legislation requires health insurers to apply the same financial requirements to mental health and substance abuse treatments as they do to medical and surgical treatments.
Laurie, who joined the Voices board in 2016, said her board service correlates with her understanding of the power of advocacy to bring about positive change for many people. She celebrated Voices’ advocacy win when the 2017 General Assembly wrote into law a comprehensive plan for improving Virginia’s behavioral health system, including allocating new funding to implement same-day access to mental health screening services at community services boards.
“Voices builds trusted relationships with policymakers,” Laurie said. “This is the only way to get things done. Data is important, it needs to be clear and correct. But at the end of the day, people connect to people.
“All of my advocacy has grown out of my family experience,” Laurie said about raising five birth children and seven adopted children as a multi-racial, multi-cultural family. She quickly learned about the challenges in the foster care system when she became an adoptive parent.
“None of the children had health insurance coverage that would come with them from foster care,” Laurie said, “and our health insurance wouldn’t cover pre-existing conditions. Like so many middle-class families, we couldn’t afford to adopt kids with disabilities, because we couldn’t afford to pay for their health insurance. Back then, children with disabilities had little hope of exiting the foster care system.”
Understandably, Voices’ foster care work resonates with Laurie. She cheered Voices’ advocacy win when the 2017 General Assembly passed legislation that auto-enrolls youth aging out of foster care into Medicaid, ensuring they will retain their health care coverage through age 26.
“It’s getting better,” Laurie said. “We have a long way to go, but we’re making progress.”
Now retired, Laurie stays busy with her Voices board service, 21 grandchildren, and volunteering as a first-grade reading tutor. Reflecting on a lifetime of service to her family and community, she said, “We are the only hands God has in this world, so you do what you can.”Read More Blog Posts