In some communities, the need for accessible mental health care often goes unfulfilled. Navigating the mental health care system, inpatient hospital stays or even just finding an affordable therapist can be difficult for individuals and families.
One of the best ways to fill this need is offering a place where people can drop in for help at any time. NAMI Sarasota-Manatee has done just that. It's opened two new drop-in service centers located in north and south Sarasota county where anyone 18 and older can receive free mental health support in the form of groups, wellness, art and music classes, free nutrition resources, lunch and more.
NAMI Sarasota executive director Colleen Thayer says the program operating out of the centers, called "You Are Not Alone" (or YANA, for short) has been going since 2021. YANA is a peer- and volunteer-led program designed to support participants on their individual paths to mental wellness.
Funding for the program has been largely through donations, including funds received through this year's Giving Challenge. NAMI's South County drop-in center held an open house on the April 25 to welcome the community.
"We have groups and activities going on all the time for free, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at both centers," Thayer says. "The accessibility, convenience and free nature of the centers are to remind the community that mental wellness is for everyone, at any stage of life. You do not need to an official diagnosis in order to participate and benefit from the center."
Thayer adds that community drop-in centers also help continue breaking the stigma surrounding mental health care, hopefully producing a healthier community down the line.
Classes at the drop-in centers cover topics like life affirming skills, healthy coping mechanisms, art, music, cooking, wellness and more. Musical acts are invited occasionally, as well as therapists from Centerstone and CASL. Free lunch is provided daily by Meals on Wheels. Both locations have fenced backyards where, Thayer says, she hopes to plant gardens so members can enjoy the space.
Ultimately, she explains, the drop-in locations are safe spaces where people can feel welcomed, supported and engaged.
For those who need higher or specialized mental health care, NAMI staff are present at both centers to extend resources, whether that's inpatient care, therapy or establishing a primary care doctor.
"We also hope to extend a few NAMI classes, as well, such as our peer-to-peer mental health courses," Thayer says. "These are eight-week courses where members can learn about the connection between mental and physical health from people who've been there, too."
Another demographic YANA and NAMI hope to reach this year is Sarasota's youth. The rise in mental illness in adolescents nationwide has been designated as a national health crisis by the Centers for Disease Control. This is in part due to loneliness, negative interactions on social media and lack of community support.
Two programs NAMI staff have implemented include Family Peer Navigation, where staff help families navigate the behavioral health care system for their child. The other, called Family Café, hosts monthly free support groups for the entire family to attend at local public schools. Student Café, an extension of the Family Café, takes places during lunch hour at school.
"Unfortunately, the rates of children being Baker Acted and undergoing inpatient hospital stays continue to increase," says Thayer. "While both can be crucial in jump-starting treatment, the level and quality of care can decline once they are released.
"We are here to help, one family and person at a time," she adds. "You are not alone."
NAMI's North County drop-in center is located 240B S. Tuttle Ave., Sarasota. The South County drop-in center is located at 1680 S. Tamiami Trail, Suite C, Venice. For more information, click here or call North County at (941) 961-8857 or South County at (941) 993-9880.