Though it takes place each May, Mental Health Awareness Month may be more visible, and more important, this year than ever before.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made it difficult for those struggling to reach out for in-person help, and social isolation has exacerbated feelings of loneliness. In response, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (known as NAMI) has created a month-long campaign for May called "You Are Not Alone," during which the organization will be sharing inspirational videos, educational resources and ways you can reach out for help on its website.
On a local level, NAMI's Sarasota and Manatee Counties chapter is holding special webinars and group meetings for the entire month of May, during which the organization will share tips on staying healthy.
"Our webinars will discuss topics like demystifying psychiatric hospital stays, The Baker Act and how family and friends can support loved ones with mental health conditions," says local NAMI program coordinator Taylor Walker.
The organization is holding an event on Friday, May 28, at a Bradenton Marauders baseball game. Volunteers will be handing out resources and running a booth in partnership with Suncoast Behavioral Health Center.
The organization has also created a blog called #NotAloneSuncoast, where members of the community can share stories about mental illness and recovery. The goal is to inspire others to reach out for help. One of the stories features local NAMI board member and volunteer Gene McIntyre, who also runs several support groups for the organization.
"I am a program facilitator for family groups, where individuals that love or support someone with mental illness can learn to navigate the condition and challenges associated with it," says McIntyre. "We discuss ways to cope with illness, how to have conversations with those struggling and sharing stories to make people feel less alone."
While people from around the world can join the chapter's groups via Zoom, those struggling with isolation can feel stuck at home. This is why the organization has begun hybrid groups and in-person groups to reinforce connection and reduce what Walker calls "Zoom fatigue."
One of the ways the groups combats this is by teaching members "change management"—learning to work with the ways the world is constantly changing, rather than "torturing yourself with it," as McIntyre says.
"We help members develop a toolkit of skills to cope in healthy ways," says McIntyre. "Rather than resisting what Covid is doing in our lives, we learn to embrace it and find creative ways to overcome obstacles and find the silver lining. Even if that silver lining is getting to connect with others and receiving free support while wearing pajamas in the house."
For those who are afraid to seek help, there are a variety of options. McIntyre suggests calling 211, United Way Suncoast's hotline, which provides referrals to free or discounted mental health services. NAMI also has a phone line and an email line for people needing assistance getting professional help.
For those with insurance, telehealth counseling has been a great resource for one-on-one care. You can also join one of the various groups at NAMI, including a young adults group for ages 18-30, a POWER (Parents Offering Wisdom, Education and Resources) group for parents who are caring for a child with mental illness, and a suicide support group for those who have lost loved ones.
"One young man came to our suicide support group right as we reopened in-person," says McIntyre. "He explained that his mother just attempted suicide, and he was afraid for her and his little brother, who also struggled with depression. He felt resentment and guilt, and just wanted to vent. We helped him learn to have productive conversation with his mother, and in the next session via Zoom, his mother attended and they were able to make amends with our facilitation."
According to McIntyre, one of the ways you can stay mentally healthy during the pandemic is finding a community where you can feel supported, and also support others.
"With mental illness and recovery, you are forced to look inward a lot, but the more you look inward, the more isolated you can become," says McIntyre. "NAMI gives you the opportunity to look outward. There is healing in supporting others."
If you want to join a webinar during the month of May or join a support group, visit the NAMI Sarasota and Manatee Counties chapter website for a calendar of events, or call (941) 444-3428.