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Obituary of Marge Parrish: Pioneering advocate for mental health

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - Marge Parrish, who had advocated on behalf of people with mental illness for more than two decades, died Sunday evening at her home in Manchester.  She was 67.

The cause was a malignant brain tumor, glioblastoma, said her daughter, Kathy Robertson. Mrs. Parrish had been diagnosed with the rapidly growing tumor last December.


A memorial visitation is scheduled from 4-8 p.m. today.

“She was a very strong, aggressive and compassionate advocate on behalf of individuals who had mental illnesses and their families,” said Richard Stevenson, director of special projects at NAMI St. Louis.

Mrs. Parrish fought to dispel myths about mental illness, erase stigma and demand respect for people with mental illness and their families. 

An early leader

Beginning in the mid-‘80s, Mrs. Parrish brought a strong and persistent parental voice to the discussion of services for families whose lives had been touched by mental illness.  Her voice, both as a volunteer and a professional, would change the landscape of mental health-care services in the St. Louis area and throughout Missouri as her efforts touched every facet of mental-health care.

She began by volunteering with NAMI St. Louis (formerly the Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Metropolitan St. Louis) and was soon named to the organization’s board, serving terms as secretary and president.  She was also named to the board of NAMI Missouri. She became a local staff member in 1992 and would eventually serve briefly as the organization’s executive director.  She later served on the staffs of the Mental Health Association of Greater St. Louis (now Mental Health America-Eastern Missouri) and the Missouri Department of Mental Health. 

As she delved into the field of mental health, her spheres of influence grew.  Her numerous affiliations included being the first parent tapped by the Department of Mental Health to represent families and she assisted in the development of the first Missouri Statewide Parent Advisory Network to improve the lives of young people with severe emotional problems and their families.   

She was also the first parent to serve on Missouri’s Child and Adolescent Service System Program, a federal program initiated in 1984 to help states begin to address the systemic problems facing children's mental health.

Judy Finnegan, director of the Children’s Office at the Missouri Department of Mental Health, came to appreciate her skills.

“People really listened to her,” Finnegan said. “She was quite a teacher for families who had kids with mental-health issues, and was equally effective with professionals. She had a lot of common sense, didn’t get rattled and didn’t have an ego.”

She did not rely solely on common sense; she armed herself with knowledge.

By the book

“Overall, Marge was best known for her encyclopedic knowledge of mental illness, mental-health services and the gatekeepers of those services — she knew how to open doors,” Stevenson said. 

She used her knowledge to teach families as well as psychiatrists, social workers and counselors about how to think about children with mental illness and the struggles faced by their families and other caregivers.

Much of what she learned was harnessed in "A Parent’s Guide — Children with Behavioral and Emotional Disorders and Mental Illnesses," a book Mrs. Parrish wrote in 1992. It was a guide to mental-health resources, defined types of mental illnesses and provided legal information, making it valuable to therapists and counselors as well as parents. Mrs. Parrish found a funding source to get the book to market. 

Throughout the years, Mrs. Parrish frequently wrote letters to the editor in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and penned an occasional Post-Dispatch commentary.  She addressed myriad issues concerning mental health, even weighing in when mentally ill persons were involved in murders or were killed.

Between 1995 and 2001, she contributed several responses to questions asked in the Post-Dispatch’s Open Mind advice column. They ranged from how to get a parent with a mental illness to take medication to how police officers can distinguish between a person with a mental illness and someone under the influence of drugs. 

In answer to the latter question, Mrs. Parrish told a distraught parent that police sometimes pick up people whose “only crime is being mentally ill.”

She worked to change that.

Bringing about change

Following the killing of a mentally ill man by St. Louis police officers in 2001, she began an intense effort to bring an intervention program, developed in Memphis to St. Louis.

At the time she wrote in the Post-Dispatch: “What weighs heaviest on our hearts is that a much-loved son who happened to have a mental illness is dead and that two young police officers have to live the rest of their lives knowing they had a hand in that unnecessary death. We in the mental-health community believe it doesn't have to be that way.”

Mrs. Parrish initiated steps to help the St. Louis County Police Department create a crisis intervention team. The program trains and supports police to  respond more safely and effectively to individuals experiencing mental-health crises.

Her efforts helped to pass legislation that enabled creation of the St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund, which provides mental-health services for youth and was instrumental in establishing county mental health courts aimed at diverting persons with mental illness away from jails and prisons and into treatment. 

She decried the lack of health insurance for severe mental illness, calling it “shortsighted and simply wrong” and implored the Missouri legislature to require insurance coverage for mental illness on a par with physical illnesses.

Often Mrs. Parrish simply supported someone who had suffered in private with a person they loved. She accompanied Lu Ann Reese and her son to their first meeting on mental health.

“Marge provided support for us,” said Reese, Mrs. Parrish’s co-worker at the Department of Mental Health. “In every environment, she talked about how people with mental health issues, with the right kind of service, can be as productive as anybody else.”

Rights for all

Margie Jo Parrish, who came to be known by all as “Marge,” was born in Moberly, Mo. on July 27, 1944. She was the younger of Steve and Josie Dooley’s two daughters. She attended Moberly Area Community College and later went to work as a secretary at Orscheln Farm & Home Supply, where she met her husband, Chris. They were married in 1963; Chris died in 2004.

When the couple moved here, Mrs. Parrish was a homemaker and partner with her husband in an Amway Corporation distributorship. She found her calling when she became an advocate on behalf of people with mental illness. After serving with several agencies as both a volunteer and staff, she retired from the Department of Mental Health in September of 2010. 

Her other volunteer efforts included the Friends of Mental Health, the St. Louis County Community Mental Health Fund and the Self Help Center, which provides free services to people diagnosed with mental illness, where she had served as board president from 2003 until her death.

Mrs. Parrish received numerous honors for her advocacy, including the Volunteer of the Year Award by the Mental Health Association of Greater St. Louis in 1992, and the Crider Health Center 2004 Heroes Advocacy Mental Health Award.

“She felt that everybody has rights, including people with mental illness,” said her daughter, Kathy.

In addition to her husband, Mrs. Parrish was preceded in death by her parents.

Her survivors include her children, Jeff (Jodi) Parrish of St. Louis and Kathy (Paul) Robertson of Fremont, Neb.; her sister, Jean (David) Dunlop of Kansas City, and four grandchildren, Reed and Morrin Parrish and Kate and Becca Robertson.

A memorial visitation for Mrs. Parrish will be from 4-8 p.m. today at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Rd., in Kirkwood. Interment will be at Oakland Cemetery in Moberly, Mo. at a later date.

Tributes in honor of Mrs. Parrish should go to the Self Help Center, 8301 Crest Industrial Drive Affton, Mo. 63123.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.