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Written by: Alan Johnson

As the COVID-19 virus continues to take a heavy toll statewide, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio and its local affiliates are finding innovative ways to help using video meetings, conference calls and “virtual walks.”

The virus outbreak is not only taking a toll on physical health, but on mental health, too.

NAMI Ohio Executive Director Terry Russell understands how important it is to continue to provide support during this time to those who rely on the NAMI affiliates around the state.

“You’re doing God’s work. Keep it going,” Russell said this week at a conference call with many of the state’s 39 affiliates from cities and counties around Ohio.

Because of orders by Gov. Mike DeWine to close schools, non-essential businesses, limit gatherings of more than 10 people and for most people to work from home, NAMI and its affiliates have been forced to eliminate face-to-face individual and group meetings, fundraising walks, dinners and many other scheduled activities.

But resourceful NAMI affiliates around the state have come up with novel ideas to help people with mental health issues and their families while following Gov. DeWine’s social-distancing directive.

Eric D. McKee, executive director of NAMI of Hancock County, said his agency is using Zoom video conferencing technology to do family-to-family and youth discussions, as well as even a “virtual game night” for people who miss the personal contact of game-playing. The agency also obtained new laptop computers from the local mental health board to accommodate better communications.

McKee, like other NAMI affiliates, said his agency has been forced to postpone its NAMI Walk, an annual fundraiser. Instead, McKee said Hancock County will do a “virtual walk” to replace the normally outdoor event.

Many NAMI affiliates are exploring using the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to get federal money through the Small Business Administration to help pay staff salaries and keep the agency open through the duration of the COVID-19 crisis.

In Delaware and Morrow counties, NAMI Director Todd Walts said his agency sent a mental health education “Ending the Silence” video to schools which are closed and doing instruction via video conference. The agency is also offering support groups online via video conferencing, adding Family and Friends seminars, doing peer interviews on Zoom, and uploading awareness videos through YouTube and other social media.

NAMI of Greater Cleveland is also using Zoom for virtual support and peer support group, including one session that had 50 participants, half of whom were new attendees, said Chris Mignogna, executive director. The agency is operating its telephone helpline from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and is utilizing SurveyMonkey to do necessary evaluations online instead of in person. The agency also took mental health help packages to hospitals in advance of the statewide shelter in place order from the governor.

NAMI of Greater Toledo has taken its popular Creative Expressions art program online, providing do-it-yourself art instructions on social media so people at home can still have a creative outlet while the COVID-19 epidemic continues. The agency is also doing virtual peer and family support groups.

The reduction is face-to-face interaction is posing a doubly difficult challenge for NAMI of Wayne and Holmes Counties which services a significant Amish population that doesn’t have access to computers or internet technology. Executive Director Helen Walkerly said phones are being used whenever possible to reach clients.

During these difficult times, NAMI affiliates throughout Ohio are finding new and unique ways to stay connected. The importance of staying in touch with those needing help and being available is the number one priority for the wonderful individuals working and volunteering at these affiliates. Even if virtual meetings are not yet up and running, all NAMI Ohio affiliates are available to provide support over the phone.

To find your local NAMI visit: https://namiohio.org/local-chapters/

You can also stay connected on social media. Most affiliates have an active Facebook page with up to date and inspiring information.