A national conference will consist of the largest group of mental health "consumers" to ever gather in Utah . . . voluntarily, according to Larry McCleery with a wry smile.

McCleery is vice president of U-CAN-DU, a statewide umbrella organization of Utah mental health consumer groups.Utah will be host next week for Alternatives '88, a national conference designed to give impetus to the mental health self-help concept. More than 600 mental health "consumers" from around the country will attend.

The message of the five-day conference, which will be held at the University of Utah Union Building, is that "on our own we can improve our quality of life," says McCleery.

The conference will begin with a candlelight vigil Wednesday at 7 p.m. on the steps of the State Capitol "to protest the stigma" of mental illness.

Thursday's agenda will include talks by representatives of national groups such as the National Mental Health Consumers Association and the National Alliance of Mental Patients.

An improv-theater group from Los Angeles, Project Return Players - made up of mental health consumers - will perform Thursday evening.

On Friday and Saturday, the conference will feature 10 workshops offering technical assistance for consumers who run their own self-help programs. Saturday's events will also include a keynote speech by Howard Geld, sometimes known as "Howie the Harp," who will talk about his experiences in the mental health system. There will also be a debate on "the right to refuse/-force treatment," and a barbecue and dance later in the evening.

For more information about the conference or about Utah's 14 local mental health consumer groups, call 538-4272.