Alabama Visionaries: Mallie and Glenn Ireland – A Shared Vision for a Better Alabama

Glenn and Mallie Ireland of Birmingham have spent their lives working to improve mental health services for Alabamians. A seed of care was planted years ago by Glenn’s sister Kathy, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“Although Kathy was fortunate enough to be able to have treatment, we realized there wasn’t much there for her back then,” Glenn said. “A psychiatrist talked to her and reported to us that she had ‘mother-brother complex.’ None of that did her any good. She actually did better at Bryce. Psychiatry didn’t do itself any favors by separating itself from the American Medical Association and forming the National Institute of Mental Health. Cancer and heart disease were getting all the federal research money. I realized that what we needed in the field of mental health was research. We needed to work on cures, not explore the nature v. nurture argument. So that is what we have focused our energies on — research. And we have years of careful records from Glenwood that we believe will help the outstanding researchers at UAB in the field of mental health and behavioral disorders.”

To that end, the Irelands have funded research chairs at UAB, established a joint lecture series on mental health and autism, and have been the prime movers behind Glenwood, the Autism and Behavioral Health Center in Birmingham.

And they haven’t just done this through their personal financial generosity and fund-raising. Along the way, Mallie served on Judge Frank Johnson’s Human Rights Committee at Bryce and Partlow, which began the de-institutionalization movement that changed the face of mental health care in the U.S. They also maintain a regular presence at Glenwood and are well-known to the staff and clients there (see accompanying story).

“This all began when we took out a newspaper advertisement about starting a Schizophrenia Association in Birmingham. To our surprise, over 200 people showed up. That is what ultimately gave rise to the Allan Cott School,” Mallie recalled.

“But going against the grain in the old days and emphasizing research has always been our main focus,” Glenn reiterated. “For example, when Kathy was taking those heavy psychotropic drugs she developed tardive dyskinesia, a side-effect of those medications that causes involuntary movement. The doctors told us it was irreversible. Well, with vitamins and diet we lowered the dosage and the effect went away. There was a time when treatment was too rigid. We are making progress now, such as vast improvement in the medications, but it seems like we have been moving way too slowly!”

Glenn said his vocal complaints about the lack of responsiveness in the system caused former Governor Fob James to challenge him. “He said, ‘Put your money where your mouth is!’ So I became Mental Health Commissioner.” Over the years Glenwood has served literally thousands of young people and adults and trained teachers and caregivers across the state. Countless lives have been changed for the better because of Glenwood and its work. Families have been given hope. It seems miraculous that just two people could establish and sustain a vision that has become a force of its own.

“You must have hope to do this kind of work,” Glenn said. “But you must also marshal resources. We cannot find cures without research.”

“It has been a miracle the whole way,” Mallie said. “Over the years, when we have had a need, someone has always been there. We have never stopped to look at where we were. We have just kept going. We’re still going.

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