Forty-two years ago, two mothers from Madison, Wisconsin, organized a national conference for families impacted by mental illness. They hoped that the event – a bold move at the time – would draw as many as 35 attendees. Instead, a crowd of 284 participants, hailing from 29 states throughout the country, showed up to participate.
That conference led to the formation of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), which is now the largest grassroots mental health organization in the United States.
While NAMI’s scope has expanded dramatically since 1979, its central mission remains the same: to provide vital resources for the millions of Americans impacted by mental illness. Today, that support exists in various forms, including education, advocacy and leadership. Among NAMI’s most critical services are its education programs, support groups, public policy initiatives and toll-free hotline, which responds to hundreds of thousands of requests for information and guidance each year.
“Our mission, if you will, is to help bring awareness to mental illness so that individuals know they’re not alone,” Jennifer Kirvan, President of NAMI Williamsburg told The Triangle. “We find that when people start attending the support groups and start talking about what they’re dealing with, the stories sound so familiar. There’s some comfort in that.”
Organizations like NAMI are invaluable even in the best of times. But amid the strain of the ongoing pandemic and intensifying shortages of healthcare workers throughout the country, such resources are more critical than ever, many mental health professionals say.
Mounting evidence has also shown a clear connection between the Covid-19 pandemic and worsening mental health challenges among Americans. A February 2021 study by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), for instance, found that four in ten adults in the U.S had reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder during the pandemic – a substantial uptick from the one in ten who reported those symptoms between January to June 2019. Another report released by KFF showed that nearly half of all people in the United States say the pandemic is adversely affecting their mental health, with two in ten saying it has had a “major impact.”
“HelpLine callers mentioning COVID-19 are most frequently experiencing serious anxiety about their physical and emotional health,” said Dawn Brown, director of community engagement at NAMI. “Some callers are experiencing panic attacks when reaching us, and our volunteers help them work through the panic until they’re able to talk about the issue.”
According to Brown, 75 percent of the callers who reach out to the NAMI HelpLine are seeking support to get through these challenging times. Many of those callers have reported feelings of hopelessness, isolation and worsening depression. As the demand for resources continues to grow, so too does NAMI’s reliance on the public for support.
This weekend, residents of the Historic Triangle will have an opportunity to bolster NAMI’s valuable work by lacing up their sneakers and participating in NAMIWalks. The event, which is considered the most important fundraiser of the year for the organization, will be held at the James City County Recreation Center on Saturday, October 9, from 10 am – 12 pm. Attendees will meet near the skate park trail entrance and walk the 3.1-mile trail around the recreation center.
NAMI Williamsburg held its first NAMIWalks fundraising event in 2020.
“It is not just about the walk or just about the fundraising. It’s also another way for people to understand what NAMI is,” Kirvan said.
As of Friday morning, NAMI Williamsburg had raised $4,185, but it’s hoping to meet its goal of $10,000. Those who want to walk in the event are encouraged to register in advance here, but Kirvan said that anyone who shows up on the day of the event will be able to participate. Covid-19 precautions will be in place to ensure a safe and enjoyable time for all.
Those who are unable to walk in the event can also show their support by making a donation, which can be done directly on the Williamsburg NAMIWalks website.
Aside from raising much-needed funds for NAMI’s free mental health programming, the event is designed to build community and let people know that they aren’t alone. Several new teams will be participating in this year’s walk, including an alumni group from William & Mary and a team from Colonial Behavioral Health, Kirvan said. NAMI will also have signage set up near a table with helpful information for people who are interested in learning more about their work.
Prior to the pandemic, the NAMI Williamsburg affiliate participated in the annual walk in Richmond, which brought together a large group of people from all over Virginia. However, because of Covid-19, NAMI Virginia opted to host a virtual event for both 2020 and 2021, and the Williamsburg affiliate decided to host its own “mini-walk.” Kirvan is hopeful that the Williamsburg walk will continue to gain traction and grow into a bigger annual event. While the walk is for a good cause, organizers emphasize that it’s also designed to be a fun, family-friendly activity.
“You might meet someone and chat and find something in common, as well,” Kirvan said.
In addition to NAMIWalks, the United Day of Hope will also feature other virtual programming coordinated by NAMI Virginia, including a Walk Day Ceremony that will be broadcasted to the group’s Facebook page and YouTube channel at 12 noon.
Additional walk day sites can also be located on the NAMIWalks Virginia Facebook page.
NAMI Williamsburg also offers free, weekly support groups for both family and peers throughout the year. The family support group currently meets on Tuesday evenings from 7:00-8:30 pm on Zoom. The peer connection group also meets on Tuesdays from 7:00-8:30 pm, with a rotating schedule that includes a mix of both Zoom and in-person meetings. For more information, visit https://namiwilliamsburg.org/.