Winter 2017 Issue


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NAMI VirginiaNAMI Virginia Update

By Rhonda Thissen, MSW
Executive Director

NAMI Virginia

New Executive Director
In September, NAMI Virginia welcomed Rhonda Thissen, MSW, as its new Executive Director. Rhonda comes to NAMI Virginia after 12 years at the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS), where she served as the agency’s Behavioral Health Program Planner. In that role, she participated in the development, implementation and evaluation of behavioral health programs, primarily for adults with serious mental illness experiencing homeless, and transition-age youth and young adults with emerging serious behavioral health conditions. She also worked at DBHDS to promote and support the sustainability of independent peer-run organizations across the state that offer peer support to individuals with mental illness and substance use conditions.

Rhonda holds a Masters of Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University, and in addition to her experience in behavioral health, has also worked in both the public and private sectors on promoting access to primary healthcare, affordable housing, HIV/AIDS services and domestic violence intervention. Rhonda can be reached by email at [email protected].

Death Penalty Exclusion for Individuals with Serious Mental Illness
For the past two years, the Virginia Legislature has considered a bill to exempt individuals with serious mental illness (SMI) from a death sentence when convicted of a capital crime. NAMI Virginia is a member of the Virginia Alliance for the Severe Mental Illness Exclusion (VASMIE), a coalition of organizations that supports this legislation. The bill would provide a legal exclusion which protects those with SMI who don’t fit the very narrow insanity defense, but have major mental impairments that make them undeserving of the death penalty.  VASMIE anticipates that the bill will be reintroduced in the 2018 session.

The legislation would not exempt defendants with SMI from punishment for their crimes. If found guilty, the defendant would receive a sentence of life in prison without parole. Nor would this legislation exempt capital defendants from the death penalty whose mental disorders are attributable primarily to voluntary use of alcohol or drugs. The rationale for this legislation is that defendants with SMI are not the “worst of the worst” for whom the death penalty is intended. The defendants who would be excluded through this exemption have a mental illness that is so severe that it prevents them from fully understanding reality and the consequences of their actions.

Virginia law currently forbids the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities and juveniles because of their diminished culpability. Medical research shows that they have diminished capacity to communicate, learn from experience, engage in logical reasoning, control impulses and understand other’s reactions; despite their similar impairments, individuals with SMI can still be executed. These individuals should be treated the same way as people with intellectual disability; they did not choose to have a serious mental illness. For more information on this issue, visit the VASMIE website at or contact Rhonda Thissen at NAMI Virginia.

NAMIWalks Virginia
NAMIWalks Virginia is one of the largest mental health awareness events in the Commonwealth and the largest fundraiser for NAMI Virginia. This year, NAMIWalks Virginia took place on Saturday, October 21. More than 1,500 participants came together for a celebration of mental health recovery and to connect with others who have “been there.” To date, NAMIWalks Virginia has raised $197,000 toward its goal of $210,000. Donations may be received through December 20th to help NAMI Virginia reach its $210,000 goal. If you would like to make a donation to NAMIWalks Virginia, please do so at Your gift will help NAMI Virginia to strengthen its mission of support, education, and advocacy.

2018 Mental Health Legislative Advocacy Days
Dates:  February 5-6, 2018
Location:  Conference space of Voices for Virginia’s Children, 701 East Franklin Street, Richmond, Virginia 23219

NAMI Virginia is again collaborating with Voices for Virginia’s Children, Mental Health America of Virginia, and the Virginia Organization of Consumers Asserting Leadership (VOCAL) to sponsor Mental Health Advocacy Days for the upcoming General Assembly session.  For the 2018 session, two advocacy days have been scheduled, one focusing on the needs of children and one on the needs of adults.  Children’s Mental Health Advocacy Day will be held on the morning of Monday, February 5, and Mental Health Advocacy Day will follow on the morning of Tuesday, February 6, 2018.  Both events will be held in the conference space of Voices for Virginia’s Children. For more information, contact NAMI Virginia Associate Director Stephany Melton Hardison at [email protected].

NAMI Virginia to Continue Enhancing Supports for Families and Youth Affected by Mental Illness
We are incredibly pleased to continue our partnership with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) in the support of the Virginia Family Network and Youth MOVE (Motivating Others through Voices of Experience) Virginia. These initiatives were launched in 2011 through a contractual agreement with DBHDS, and we are grateful for the opportunity to continue this work with a new five-year agreement. Virginia Family Network and Youth MOVE Virginia provide support, education, and other resources for parents, youth, and young adults.  In addition, these initiatives empower and engage parents, youth, and young adults to be leaders in their communities in order to impact change for all youth and families.  For more information, contact Sarah Wilson at [email protected] or Amanda Long at [email protected].

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