In 2014, when longtime supporter Elaine McWain wanted to officially donate her downtown house to NAMI, local attorney Jill Whitley steered us through the legalities of accepting the donation. In spite of the countless hours of research Jill devoted to this task, she capped her fees at a ridiculously low level, and wouldn’t hear of accepting more.
It was a deeply generous gesture — and a harbinger of what was to come once Jill joined NAMI’s board of directors.
Over the last six years, Jill has provided copious legal expertise while tackling the kind of unglamorous work (read: bylaws updates) from which most would run screaming. She has served as treasurer, a leader of the organization’s Nominating and Governance Committee and a standout donor, as evidenced by the array of Bristol Brewing Company growlers she’s collected as rewards for her annual Give! gifts. And she has provided meaningful insight into every big organizational decision in that time — including moving out of that downtown house (due to a mold infestation) to a new office in Southeast Colorado Springs.
What’s more, Jill has fielded dozens of referrals from NAMI of people and families in need of legal aid. She has always been there to help, and often pro bono.
This fall, Jill Whitley reached the end of her board term. But when we asked her to share a few thoughts on mental illness and the law, and on NAMI’s future, she said sure — answering by email, again working for NAMI over the weekend.
Can you describe your law practice, and how issues related to mental illness sometimes factor into what your clients need?
My law practice has included assisting clients with their estate planning and with establishing guardianships for incapacitated family members. Clients who have a family member living with a mental illness — almost always an adult child — want advice about what they can do to help their child and improve their quality of life.
With estate planning, I feel can be helpful. The law allows you to control the disposition of your assets when you die, and using a trust allows money to be available to help a child with a mental illness. But it is still necessary and critically important to name someone to serve as trustee to manage the trust on behalf of that child. I have clients who struggle with that decision …
With guardianships, I can offer much less help. The standards and procedure for appointing a guardian may make it difficult to succeed in a contested case. Even if you are successful, the authority of a guardian does not include authority to order involuntary treatment for the child’s mental illness, which is usually what my clients want the most. Involuntary treatment for mental illness is governed by a different legal process and laws, and the decision to even pursue such a remedy seems to be in the hands of medical professionals, not parents.
What are some challenges within our legal system that are commonly faced by people and families navigating mental illness?
With respect to guardianship and mental health commitment laws, the legal system is challenged by the tension between individual freedom and helping those who cannot help themselves. We seem to be able to resolve this tension more successfully with other illnesses (dementia) or conditions (traumatic brain injury).
The legal system allows guardians for such people to obtain medical treatment — whether insulin shots, antibiotics for a urinary tract infection, or surgery — against their wishes. But with respect to medication or other treatment for a mental illness, you hear the statement that “people have the right to be crazy.” …
The law attempts to resolve this tension by allowing state intervention only when the person is either a danger to themselves or others or is “gravely disabled.” However, the gravely disabled standard seems to families to be too strict when they are told that their 24-year-old daughter who wanders the streets alone at night without proper clothes in order to fulfill her CIA mission is not engaging in behavior that is dangerous enough to meet that standard.
"You hear the statement that
'people have the right to be crazy.'"
To what extent has your role with NAMI overlapped with or informed your other volunteer work in the community?
My other volunteer work in the community has concerned access to justice. For me, this has primarily taken the form of providing direct pro bono advice to those who cannot afford a lawyer — and whose needs cannot be met by our under-funded and under-staffed legal services office.
I have spoken with parents who, just like my paying clients, want to know what they can do to help an adult child with a mental illness. For them, guardianship is even more problematic since their child will be appointed an attorney paid by the state to fight the guardianship, while no equivalent free legal representation is available to them.
I have also spoken to those living with a mental illness, who have more than the usual difficulty understanding and navigating the legal system and knowing and enforcing their rights as wards, trust beneficiaries, or heirs of an estate. I think my work with NAMI has given me greater sensitivity in doing this work, as well as an additional resource that I can refer people to for help and support.
What positive developments have you seen emerge in the local mental health landscape during your six years on the board?
During the last six years, I have seen the issue of mental health rise in importance in our community. There is a growing awareness that mental health services must be a component of our efforts to reduce homelessness. There is a greater recognition in law enforcement that people with mental illness, particularly those in crisis, should be approached differently so that a conflict can be resolved rather than escalated.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in the local mental health landscape, what would you change?
The "magic wand" question is always a hard one.
On a grand scale, the biggest change I’d like to see would be to have a variety of affordable residential options for those living with mental illness, where case management is provided and services (health, transportation, employment, legal) can be coordinated.
On a smaller scale, I would bring back the mental health court so those who become involved in the criminal system as a result of their mental illness could receive the supportive services they need to avoid further involvement with the criminal system and even incarceration.
As a board member and treasurer, you’ve seen NAMI from a number of different angles. What’s something that a lot of people may not know about NAMI, but should?
People should know just how many people have been positively affected by the programs and services NAMI offers and, as a result, just how much of a benefit NAMI provides our community. I have attended some Colorado state NAMI events and have been struck by how much more NAMI Colorado Springs offers than the other NAMI affiliates around the state.
And people should also know that the primary reason for that is the quality of our staff and the untiring dedication of both our staff and our many volunteers to the NAMI mission and vision.
If you were referring somebody to NAMI, and they didn’t know anything about the organization already, what would you say about it?
When I refer folks to NAMI (which I do often), I tell them that at NAMI they will get information about community resources, practical advice about navigating the mental health system in our community, and support and understanding from those who have walked their walk and felt their fears and frustrations. And that if they are running low on strength and hope, NAMI can help with that too.
"The 'magic wand' question is always a hard one."
What are your hopes for NAMI’s future?
I hope that NAMI continues to expand its programs to meet the growing need in our community for education and support. I hope that NAMI becomes a more important player and advocate as our local community and our state address issues of mental health services and support. I hope that NAMI can find additional steady sources of funding that will allow it to continue its core mission while taking on bigger and harder challenges.