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Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, discusses how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting people living with mental illness—and how it could have long-lasting effects.
NAMI Minnesota was founded to change public policy to make the world a more equitable place for people living with mental illness. In 1976, when the organization first began, it likely didn’t see the coronavirus pandemic coming.
“A ‘kitchen table’ coalition led by Pat Solomonson, a mother who had been unable to get services for her son with schizophrenia, took on the legislature for the first time. The legislators gave in and provided a little over $1.5 million—the first state monies for community mental health programs in Minnesota, which was called Sharing Life in the Community (SLIC),” says Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota.
Today, NAMI continues focusing on changing public policies and providing education, peer support groups, suicide prevention, and public awareness, for everyone from children all the way to older adults.
“So much of our work was conducting outreach in the community, holding in-person support groups and classes. With COVID-19, all of that stopped,” Abderholden says. “We had to stop doing everything in person. The wonderful staff at NAMI pulled together, and within days we were operating virtually.”
NAMI Minnesota is offering classes online every week to ensure that people are receiving the information and education to get through this and to increase their knowledge about wellness, mental health, and mental illnesses.
NAMI Minnesota has moved nineteen of its seventy support groups online, including its GLBT support group. “It’s hard because not everyone has access to technology—including phones,” Abderholden points out.
Right now, everyone is anxious and experiencing grief, uncertainty, and fear of some kind due to COVID-19. For people who had a mental illness before COVID-19, the situation is just making it worse, Abderholden says.
“While most insurance companies will now cover telemedicine, we are finding that those in-home services are not being funded to be delivered in alternative methods,” she adds. “People are more isolated than ever before, and we worry greatly that our mental health system is about to collapse when more people need help.”
If you have a loved one living with mental illness, Abderholden says that you shouldn’t expect them to reach out to you. “You need to reach in. Don’t just focus on their symptoms, but talk about their day, take a ‘virtual walk’ with them, use FaceTime to eat together or even watch a movie,” she says. “Make sure that they have food and meals to eat. Use an app, such as Calm, to meditate or do mindfulness exercises.”
For folks who are living with mental illness themselves, Abderholden says the first priority to keep in mind is safety.
“Control what you can. Take the steps needed to stay safe, including staying at home, washing your hands, and cleaning frequently used surfaces. Create a routine so there is some semblance of normalcy—take a shower, eat breakfast, go to bed at a reasonable time. Limit your intake of the news because it can become overwhelming,” she notes.
Very closely tied to your mental health is your physical health, so Abderholden suggests moving around a lot and eating nutritious meals. Whether it’s a walk around the block, doing yoga to YouTube videos, or dancing to music, movement increases the endorphins in the brain and helps us feel better and less stressed—something we all could certainly use right now. Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and drinking a lot of water will help balance out the comfort food that we are all turning to right now, too.
Abderholden also says it’s important to stay connected with others. Pick up the phone or use FaceTime or another application to connect with people in your life, she says. “Reach in to those who may be really struggling. Helping others makes us feel better as well.”
Lastly, she says it’s important to lower your expectations and ban perfectionism—in other words, don’t be so hard on yourself… it’s a global pandemic, after all.
“This is a tough time for everyone. Forgive people for getting cranky and upset. Give people grace and space,” she adds. “We will get through this. Not alone. But together.”
For more information on NAMI Minnesota, visit namimn.org.
Here is a list of mental health resources available during COVID-19:
- NAMI Minnesota warm line: call 651-288-0400, text “support” to 85511, or call 844-739-6369
- Minnesota crisis teams: call **CRISIS
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Crisis text line: available for free 24/7, text MN to 741741
- SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline: call 1-800-985-5990