Running an Affiliate During a Pandemic

Teena Mackey, President of NAMI Will-Grundy for the past 6 years, is seeing firsthand the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on NAMI affiliates. She shares her observations here.

As the leader of NAMI Will-Grundy, what changes have you seen since the advent of the Coronavirus?

Initially, as a result of the shelter-in-place order our calls for support actually diminished; the tendency to isolate is a typical reaction to the triggers of symptoms of mental illness, so the directive to stay at home was accomplished fairly easily and individuals generally reported “I’m okay, I feel safe here at home.” 

As time goes on, however, the pitfalls of isolation have begun to occur. Individuals report loneliness, increased anxiety and racing thoughts that include a concern of “What if this goes on for months? What’s going to happen to me?” Usually people can reach out and attend a peer support group, but at this time we are limited to phone calls and online support groups. While this new style of support is helpful, becoming online “savvy” in and of itself can be intimidating and a trigger to anxiety.

Additionally, we are finding that many of those who participate in our peer support groups lack the technology to effectively participate on a zoom platform. Many have the “government phone” which does not support video, and a vast number cannot afford laptop computers and the cable access needed to support them.   

At NAMI Will-Grundy, we are eager to help consumers get the technology they need. We sort of take for granted that everyone has a computer and Wi-Fi access and we are finding that this is not the case.  

You are also a Family Support Group facilitator and have transitioned to co-leading groups online. What adjustments did you have to make in the online environment?

The topics do not differ much, but the anxiety that stems from a feeling of having a lack of control over your life occurs much more often. People are unsure if and when this COVID-19 pandemic will end, and there is constant fear about their loved ones becoming ill and dying OR of their isolation triggering a suicide attempt.

Body language and facial communication is such an important part of communication and these can be more difficult to read in the online format. It also becomes more incumbent on me as the facilitator to make sure that one or two people do not dominate the discussion and to make certain that everyone gets a chance to participate. This can be a bit more of a challenge in the online effort.   

I find that we need to be particularly patient with the process! Folks are joining support from their homes and tend to be a little less formal than if they are getting dressed and leaving home to venture out into the community; smoking and eating while talking are much more common than in an in-person experience! But that’s okay – it’s just good that they’re there.

As you look to the not-too-distant future, what impact do you think COVID-19 will have in how NAMI affiliates will operate?

I think that there will continue to be an online support group effort. As we become more comfortable with the use of the technology, the online option can continue to serve individuals diagnosed with a mental illness and their families/caretakers who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend an in-person support group. We’ll now have another way to meet people where they’re at.