On Thursday March 12, 2020, as the world around us was coming to a grinding halt, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) NYC made the decision to close our offices, for an indefinite period of time. For nearly 40 years, our doors have remained open, through snowstorms and hurricane aftermaths, on Saturdays and even on Christmas Day, but this was different.
The safety of our program participants, volunteers, and staff was our top priority – then, and always. But as the largest affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI-NYC’s mission is to help families and individuals who are dealing with issues affecting their mental health, and the pandemic was, without a doubt, increasing the level of anxiety and worry of our city. In order to continue providing support to the many thousands of New Yorkers who rely on us every year, we had to adapt, and quickly.
By Monday morning, our phone-based Helpline – normally answered by volunteers on-site in our office – was now run by staff connected to Google Voice, and our support groups became available through conference call numbers. Over the next two weeks, we got up on Zoom, teaching our volunteer facilitators and teachers how to use the technology, and how to take attendance with cloud-based forms. By the middle of April, all of our support groups and education classes were available via Zoom, and we were offering our monthly public and ongoing school-based education events virtually. While we adapted, we supported each other where we could, offering emotional support when needed, because we were experiencing the same fears and uncertainties as those we serve.
Over the next many months, calls and emails to our Helpline increased two-fold. Many worked beyond the end of the day to connect with those who sought our support. More people were calling with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and many were reaching out for contact; in our mandated isolation, the feelings of fear and loneliness increased. We started a weekly Wellness Chat, to give people a lifeline to hold onto in the midst of turbulent waters, and we launched a support group for people experiencing anxiety and depression.
Spring turned to summer, and social unrest exploded across the country, as centuries of inequity and violence collided with the stress of COVID. As we strive daily to support the diversity of New York City, we started Black Minds Matter, a support group for Black individuals living with a mental illness, an offering we have found is unique in the mental health support ecosystem.
In 2019 we served more than 19,000 New Yorkers. As 2020 came to a close, we had touched the lives of nearly 30,000. That’s 52% more individuals, as even more people sought the resources we provide.
Alongside our program staff, the business staff had to adapt, too. We shifted our annual May NAMIWalks NYC fundraiser to be a virtual event, and made our fall Gala free of charge as we went virtual. We needed to continue raising funds, but we also needed to provide opportunities for our community to connect with each other. So, we sought additional funding through grants, sponsorships, and individual donations.
We are very proud of how our stellar staff of 14, along with our hundreds of inspiring and incredibly dedicated volunteers, have risen to the challenge of increased demand. And we know there are people who we are not able to reach, because we cannot meet in person. So as the city begins to open, we are exploring ways we might be able to return to the office, even partially, to again open our doors to the people who need us.
In the meantime, NAMIWalks Your Way NYC will be held virtually on May 22 as we continue to build community despite the existing challenges we all continue to face.
While we, like many, breathe a sigh of relief as cases go down and vaccinations increase, we know there are hard times ahead. A year-plus of anxiety, economic stress, and physical isolation have taken a toll on the mental health of many New Yorkers, as we lived through the epicenter of a global pandemic. The grief, loss, and trauma we have all endured has left its mark, and we know there can be no true recovery without focusing on mental health too.
Written by Matt Kudish, LMSW, MPA, Executive Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC (NAMI-NYC).
NAMI-NYC helps families and individuals affected by mental illness build better lives through education, support, and advocacy. NAMI-NYC was founded by a small group of parents who came together for support, for guidance, and for resources. Sharing lived experiences remains the guiding principle of our organization, and the core pillar of our programs. As the largest affiliate of NAMI, for almost 40 years we have worked with our state and national partners to support the people of New York City.