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Originally published in Lavender Magazine, February 2021
It goes without saying, but the last year has been challenging on so many levels. So take a moment and ask yourself, ‘how am I feeling?’
“The pandemic has impacted nearly everyone’s mental health due to the difficulty of facing uncertainty, being isolated, and losing jobs. And frankly, COVID itself is being linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety,” said Sue Aderholden, the Executive Director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota.
NAMI Minnesota, based in Saint Paul, works to improve the lives of children and adults with mental illness through educational programs, support groups, and advocacy work. The nonprofit, incorporated in 1977, has affiliates around Minnesota, from Grand Rapids to Willmar.
Before the pandemic, NAMI offered 75 support groups. Currently, they have 29 virtual support groups, all of which are free for attendees diagnosed with a mental illness.
The general public are invited to participate in classes, currently held virtually, to better understand loved ones. Recent classes addressed back to school anxiety, along with eating and substance abuse disorders. In addition, NAMI’s outreach includes a program for employers to help their employees address their mental wellness. Plus, they are expanding outreach to the BIPOC community through a young adult multicultural advisory committee.
Supporting the LGBTQ+ community
NAMI Minnesota has two support groups for LGBTQ+ individuals who live with a mental illness, with a third expected to start in early 2021.
Marcus Linn from Minneapolis became involved with NAMI as a peer support member eight years ago following a suicide attempt and hospitalization.
Linn is now a co-facilitator of a LGBTQ+ group, which typically has more than 10 participants who vary in age and orientation. “I strongly believe in volunteerism and especially have aimed my efforts toward the queer community, because that is who I am, what I know, who I love, and need to see strong and healthy,” Linn said.
“When I encounter a member of the community who is struggling with their mental health, the first thing I relate to them is that they are not alone,” Linn continued. “Talking to others and using mental health resources is a first step out of the morass.”
Executive Director Aderholden and her staff are aware that those in the LGBTQ+ community face additional strain and pressure from bullying, violence, and discrimination. “We provide suicide prevention classes to the community knowing that the risk of suicide is higher in the LGBTQ community,” Aderholden said.
“I myself get so much out of being a support group facilitator,” Linn added. “I can relate to everybody’s struggle even if it isn’t identical to mine. I have facilitated support groups most of my working life, and it feels good to be able to continue using those skills after becoming totally disabled.”
NAMI’s work for the LGBTQ community goes beyond their support groups. NAMI’s In Our Own Voice series, which is open to the public, features speakers from the LGBTQ community who live with a mental illness. Meanwhile, at the State Capitol, NAMI is actively supporting a bill to ban conversion therapy. The NAMI Minnesota website has a dedicated section for the LGBTQ+ community, which includes fact sheets on suicidal behavior in LGBTQ youth and LGBTQ+ treatment disparities.
“NAMI provides a vital service to our community, and we are lucky to have groups for LGBTQ+ people, which is not the case for so many people in the country,” Linn said. “ It isn’t always easy to open up, even with our own. The fact that these community specific groups exist cuts through the fear and often reality of dealing with other people’s prejudices. We don’t have to define or defend ourselves with our own community members, and a lot of us have experienced those kinds of traumas too often.”
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Adapting while providing a critical service
The need for the classes, support groups and other services NAMI Minnesota provides has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic began. At the same time, staff were challenged to turn in-person support groups into virtual communities. Like other nonprofits, NAMI Minnesota had to reduce revenue expected from their fundraising events. Fortunately, the organization was the recipient of a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and has not faced the decision of laying off staff.
Ask for help or become an advocate
Phone calls to NAMI Minnesota’s Helpline are up 35% since the COVID pandemic started. More than 3,100 people connected in the last year, looking for assistance in navigating the mental health system.
“People, both children and adults, who were living with a mental illness prior to COVID-19 are struggling, and more people are struggling with their mental health since COVID-19 began,” Abderholden added.
A Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll in mid-July found that 53% of adults in the United States reported their mental health was negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus.
“If you are struggling, reach out. You can talk to your family physician, or seek help from a mental health professional,” said Abderholden. “There are many clinics and therapists that are welcoming to the LGBTQ+ community.”
If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text MN to 741741 to be connected to a counselor. The Trevor Project is a free resource and is available 24 hours a day by calling 1-866-488-7386.
At NAMI Minnesota, they are looking for individuals wanting to lead support groups following proper training, become members of their legislative committee, and donate to further their mission. You can connect with the National Alliance for Mental Illness Minnesota at www.namimn.org or by calling (651) 645-2948.
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