On January 22, Eleanor Owen will celebrate her 100th birthday. If you’ve been around NAMI for a while, you likely know the name. You might know of her role in starting—and then leading for more than twenty years—NAMI Seattle, the first mental health organization in Washington state (then known as the Washington Advocates for the Mentally Ill,) and co-founding the national nonprofit, the National Alliance for the mentally ill, which became The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). You might also think of her many mental health legislative victories, her unrelenting and fierce style of advocacy, and the nickname associated with it: The Barracuda.
If you’ve met Eleanor, you know the strange sensation of connecting her outsized impact on mental health in this country with her diminutive stature. She reminds you of a hummingbird: tireless energy, tiny size. In a boxing ring, she’d barely be a featherweight, but anyone she’s gone toe-to-toe with will tell you she punches high above her weight.
Eleanor did not set out to remake Washington and the nation’s mental health systems. Though her childhood is marked by her father’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder and her sister’s mental struggles, Eleanor put that behind her and made a life for herself in the dramatic arts. As a young woman and mother, she sewed costumes and displays for local department stores, taught classes, raised two children, and received two degrees from the University of Washington.
When her son Jody developed schizophrenia at 17, her life as she knew it ended. Her consuming passion and drive became getting him help. Eventually, her experience and her passion led to helping all the sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers whose lives were marked by a system that seemed created to hinder instead of help those seeking treatment and support for mental health conditions.
On January 22, we celebrate Eleanor’s life and her unparalleled legacy. Though few of us can claim anywhere near her energy, we join in her cause every time we speak up and speak out, and every time we do not accept the status quo.
In honor of Eleanor, we invite you to continue her cause by becoming a sustaining NAMI Seattle member. A monthly recurring gift honors her commitment and sustains her legacy.
Wherever you are on the journey, we’re here with you.
Board Member, NAMI Seattle