The Greater Des Moines affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness has ended its affiliation with NAMI Iowa and the national NAMI organization, in a move the former local affiliate’s leaders say will better enable the local organization to serve and represent Greater Des Moines communities.

Michele Keenan, who has led NAMI Greater Des Moines as its first full-time executive director since July 2016, will continue as executive director of the newly incorporated organization, MindSpring Mental Health Alliance. The group’s leadership, staff, volunteers, membership and programs it has developed outside of NAMI’s programs will largely remain the same, Keenan said.

The membership of NAMI Greater Des Moines on Wednesday formally approved the organization’s new bylaws as MindSpring and approved new articles of incorporation. The organization’s board, led by Ashley Adams, had voted unanimously in January to surrender its affiliation with NAMI Inc.  

The National Alliance on Mental Illness describes itself as the “nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.” The Greater Des Moines chapter was one of 15 local NAMI affiliates across the state, and made up about one-fifth of NAMI Iowa’s 850 members.  

NAMI Greater Des Moines served approximately 107,000 people in 2020 through its programs, which represents 48% growth from 2019, according to Keenan. Over the past three years, the number of people served has more than tripled, with 230% growth. “That kind of growth has been incredible, and 2021 continues to just knock our socks off,” she said.  

Keenan said a new website is planned to launch in a couple of weeks, but for now, MindSpring Mental Health Alliance can be found at its two existing sites, and

Differences in how the Greater Des Moines affiliate approached its role in assisting the community during the pandemic highlighted issues “that had been on our minds for a while,” Keenan said in an interview last week with the Business Record. In addition to programming, those other issues included routine confusion between two similarly named groups — NAMI Iowa and NAMI Greater Des Moines — that are both based in Des Moines. Each operated under a separate board with separate finances as well.

The pandemic has been a pivotal time for the Greater Des Moines organization, Keenan said.

“Last March when we started talking about COVID, it became obvious pretty quickly there was going to be a significant mental health component to the pandemic — grief, fear, isolation, anxiety and depression were going to be major parts of that experience,” she said. “We took the attitude that this is why NAMI Greater Des Moines exists. This is the moment — this is the time to really deliver.”

Keenan’s first telephone call was to NAMI Iowa to discuss strategy for delivering programs virtually, but she found there were no virtual resources that the state chapter could provide. “So what we did was roll out this program that was really a COVID response program,” she said.

One of its major components was an eight-week inspirational speaker series, along with a partnership with Farrell’s Extreme Bodyshaping to offer live virtual workouts and prerecorded workout videos. NAMI Greater Des Moines also began offering virtual webinars for community members and businesses. Together, those programs served about 35,000 people during the initial three months of pandemic.

In the course of engaging through virtual programming, the organization has significantly expanded its education and support services beyond the four-county area of Polk, Dallas, Warren and Madison counties that it represented as a NAMI affiliate.

It has reached out to the business community so that organizations could make their employees aware of the free virtual programs, in turn putting each company’s logo on the event materials. “That was really an incredibly effective way to get people engaged, and the response was really impressive,” Keenan said.

Adams, the group's board leader, added: “Because we’re so small and nimble, we were able to put all of that together within three weeks, with the help of the community.”

The process of ending the affiliation took much longer to play out, said Adams, who in her professional role is the rehabilitation director with Optimae Life Services.

“This has really been a long process, kind of a soul-searching process, because it’s a big decision,” she said. “I'd say we've probably been contemplating this decision and researching for the last four to five years. And through that time we developed different programs and ensured we were financially stable in a viable organization in itself to make this decision. And especially through the pandemic, we recognized that we can do this and that it’s time to do this to better serve our community.”

As a separate organization from NAMI, “we're actually going to really be able to expand on our advocacy efforts at a local level,” Adams said. “And so that will be a big step forward for us in our community as well. National advocacy platforms are great, and definitely serve a purpose, but there are times when the needs of a local community maybe aren't 100% reflected in national platforms.”

Peggy Huppert, executive director of NAMI Iowa, acknowledged that having national, state and local affiliates can be confusing for people. “Whenever we talk to people, we try to make it clear that they are a separate 501(c), with their own board,” she said.

As far as the new organization, “I wish them luck,” Huppert said. “I want to emphasize that we will be starting a new NAMI affiliate in Central Iowa to offer NAMI programs. NAMI programs are specific to NAMI, and they are delivered by people with lived experience."

Huppert said NAMI Greater Des Moines really hasn’t been offering any NAMI programs lately, as the virtual workshops and other programming it has been offering were developed outside of NAMI. “I’m assuming they just want to go in a different direction,” she said. “But they can’t use NAMI programs — you have to be a NAMI affiliate to use those.”

Under NAMI’s structure, when someone joins NAMI they become a member of the national, state and a local affiliate, with the local affiliate assigned based on the person’s ZIP code. From NAMI’s perspective, the Greater Des Moines members remain members of NAMI. “I’m not sure if those people will be immediately assigned to this new affiliate we’re creating, but they are going to remain in the NAMI family,” Huppert said.

“I just really want people to know that NAMI will continue,” she said. “We’ll be reaching out to the program leaders here in Central Iowa about reinstituting some of the programs. We are in due course looking to start it up again. We want to make sure this part of the state is served, and that it’s served with NAMI programs.”

Does she see any positives to the split?

“I really can’t imagine a scenario where we have too many mental health services,” she said. “Their programming has become more virtual. So I think they were increasingly reaching out and serving people beyond the four-county area. That’s fine; that’s great. I wish them the best.”

Two new virtual education programs to be offered statewide by NAMI Iowa

NAMI Iowa has recently taken the lead on two upcoming statewide virtual education programs that would otherwise be conducted through each of its local affiliates.

“Ending the Silence,” a program for high school students to learn about the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges, and “NAMI Provider,” a program to teach clinicians how to be better providers of mental health care, will each be offered directly by NAMI Iowa this year, Executive Director Peggy Huppert said. As with most of its programs, both will be available free to participants.

“In the case of these programs, we found it requires accessing different large systems,” Huppert said. The Ending the Silence program, for instance, includes collaboration with Employee & Family Resources, 4-H, and the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines.

For the NAMI Provider program, which is offered in collaboration with Des Moines University, NAMI Iowa recently received a grant from Delta Dental of Iowa that will enable the program to be offered to more ethnic, racial and religious groups, as well as the LGBTQ community. Partners in the initiative include Proteus, EMBARC, Primary Health Care and Broadlawns Medical Center.

“What we know is that clinicians in general don’t receive a whole lot of education about people who present with mental health challenges,” she said. “But it’s particularly hard in these populations where there are additional barriers such as stigma and transportation.”

NAMI Iowa held its first meeting of a new advisory group directing the virtual programs last week. “We’re really excited to be doing that work,” Huppert said.