COVID-19 ramped up NAMI’s mental health support throughout Utah | ParkRecord.com
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COVID-19 ramped up NAMI’s mental health support throughout Utah

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hosts a staff meeting on Zoom. The nonprofit, which recently established a Summit/Wasatch chapter, has moved their support groups to the digital format during the coronavirus crisis.
Photo by Christene Finch

For more information about NAMI Online Support Groups please contact Christene Finch, State Programs Coordinator for NAMI Utah at christene@namiut.org.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah sees the silver lining in the COVID-19 situation — the reach of its online support groups.

The mental health nonprofit, known as NAMI Utah, which recently set up a Summit and Wasatch county chapter, began offering its Connection and Family support groups via Zoom to anyone who requested them shortly after the state and county coronavirus protocols were implemented in March.

“By doing so, we’ve been able reach rural communities,” said programs director Robin Holcomb. “We have participants from Boulder and Moab and Sanpete County.”

In addition, the digital platform makes it easy for people to join a group who may not have been able to in the past, she said.

“There are many people who feel more comfortable turning on their computer than physically attending a support group,” Holcomb said. “And we are seeing people who, in the past, have had problems lining up childcare.”

The NAMI Connection Support Group offers two Wednesday sessions. from 12:30-2 p.m. and 7-8:30 p.m.

The NAMI Family Support Group that serves families of those with mental health conditions is held Tuesdays from 7-8:30 p.m.

Participation is free, but registration is required online at namiut.2.vu/sg, according to Holcomb.

“We have a screening process to make sure these sessions are safe places for people to meet and discuss what they are going through,” she said.

Holcomb knows that COVID-19, while having an impact on everyone, has especially hit those who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

“This just adds to the challenges they are going through,” she said. “So NAMI Utah wanted to make sure these support groups were online by May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month.”

The digital support groups have turned out differently than what Holcomb originally envisioned, she said.

“I thought we would see each other on Zoom and check in and talk about our weeks,” she said. “I didn’t really think we were going to have meaningful exchanges of thought and support.”

Participants discuss ways to find new therapists, what treatments have worked and how to support loved ones during the COVID-19 quarantine, Holcomb said.

“The support groups are mimicking what we’ve done in person,” she said. “They just feel different because we’re not in the same room.”

NAMI, which was founded in 1988, differs from some of the other mental health groups in the country because it is a grassroots organization, Holcomb said.

“While it is important to connect with professional organizations such as the People’s Health Clinic and Summit County Health Department, the power of NAMI is peers, and we believe the power of change comes through peer education and support,” she said. “The biggest focus is getting people who have mental health conditions or people with loved ones with mental health conditions involved to help us grow this movement.”

The nonprofit’s mission is to not only ensure the dignity of those who live with mental illness, but also improve their lives through advocacy, education and support, Holcomb said.

“Our greatest strength is the dedication of the family members and individuals living with mental health conditions who teach our classes and lead our support groups,” she said.

“There are a lot of myths regarding a class that is not taught by a highly educated psychiatrist or psychologist won’t teach what people need to learn.”

Those lessons come from personal experiences, Holcomb said.

“Because our teachers and group leaders … have personal experience with having a mental illness or have a family member who has a mental illness, the classes make deep impacts on those who attend. I’ve had numerous people approach me weekly to tell me how much these classes have improved their lives and the lives of their loved ones.”

Throughout the past couple of years, NAMI has made some inroads to the Wasatch Back, Holcomb said.

That’s when Carla Astorga, Certified Aid Mentor Specialist with Latino Behavioral Health, approached NAMI about rebuilding the affiliate to serve Summit and Wasatch counties, according to Holcomb.

“With the help of Carla, who is our Summit and Wasatch counties executive committee president, we basically had to start from square one, and are slowly developing a presence up there,” she said. “We’re really excited about it.”

Although the two online support groups are only offered in English at the present moment, NAMI Utah is currently working on a new Spanish program called Compartiendo Esperanza that will be rolled out in July, Holcomb said.

“Compartiendo Esperanza means sharing hope, and the program will give basic mental health education,” she said.

The switch to a digital format is just the beginning of how NAMI Utah will move forward, Holcomb said.

“When we’re able, we will go back to offer support groups in person, but there will always be a place for people online,” she said.


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