By Dr. Dennis J. Geiger

One word captures the impact that COVID-19 has had on our lives … “STRESS.”  All of us have experienced the strain of adjusting to the abrupt life alterations caused by the pandemic. We have had to change how we work, go to school, shop, socialize with friends and conduct normal leisure and business routines. 

During this pandemic, people report experiencing more frustration, anger, fear, boredom, depression, and symptoms of PTSD, according to an article published recently by the Pennsylvania Psychological Association. During non-pandemic times, approximately 20% of Americans experience some form of a mental health disorder. Anxiety and depression comprise the majority of mental disorders and have intensified to even higher levels. Uncertainty about finances, concern for the welfare of older relatives, and the added dilemmas of child care and schooling can trigger anxiety and negative thoughts, which can lead to depression. 

When the shutdown began in March, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) quickly shifted its programs to online platforms to meet the rising needs outlined above, allowing people to be socially and emotionally connected while physically distancing. All of NAMI’s programs are evidence-based and free of charge. Individuals with lived experience with mental illness are trained to lead peer programs and trained family members who are caretakers lead family programs.

Our local affiliate, NAMI-Lehigh Valley, increased the frequency of our support groups from monthly to weekly and looked for other ways to facilitate interaction within this new format. Services we provide include:

• Online peer support groups. With the added pressure of this pandemic, mental conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, delusional disorders and eating disorders are likely to escalate. Moreover, for individuals who have paranoid thoughts and fears, the mixed messages about how to protect yourself can produce dread and mistrust of imposed guidelines—even those that are well grounded in science. NAMI has developed a format for online support groups, addressing concerns about confidentiality and making sure sessions are attended by appropriate participants (e.g., avoiding “Zoom bombing” through common-sense policies and procedures).

• Online family support groups. COVID-19 is especially hard on caregivers. Under normal conditions, attending to the needs of vulnerable and challenged persons can be frustrating and exhausting work; the unpredictability of the pandemic takes an additional emotional toll even on the strongest caregivers. They too need to take time to protect and care for themselves, which means expending more energy and staying more vigilant. It is crucial that we support caregivers. Encouraging them to talk can allow feelings to be expressed and balance to be restored. Our weekly family support groups provide a safe, confidential setting that may be even more crucial when isolation makes it impossible to take a break or take advantage of other usual supports.

• General online support. We are adding a support group for people who don’t necessarily have a mental health diagnosis but may be experiencing symptoms like anxiety and depression for the first time due to the many disruptive events of 2020. Each meeting will begin with a brief presentation on a set topic, which will lead to a general discussion that is an opportunity to share and exchange successful coping strategies. Participants can decide for themselves if they want to speak or to just listen. 

• Education courses. When a family member is diagnosed with mental illness, the individual and their family are not sure how the illness may affect their lives. (Just what a person needs during a pandemic, more uncertainty!) Participants in our Family-to-Family education course learn about various diagnoses and medications, the latest brain research, new communication skills and more. Peer-to-Peer education course participants also learn about medications, diagnoses and similar topics, and they are given tools to build a support network and stay on the road to recovery. A major takeaway for both peers and family members is realizing they are not alone as they cope with mental illness.

Ending the Silence program. In this program, aimed at high school students, a psychologist uses visual aids and tells how to recognize signs of mental distress and suicidal intentions and how to respond. A young adult who is in recovery tells their personal story managing mental illness in order to succeed in life.

• Other programs. Our community presentations have switched to virtual formats also. NAMI’s Faithnet: Bridges of Hope talk explores how faith communities can help individuals and families touched by mental illness at a time when they may need an extra layer of support. We continue to provide presentations for groups in behavioral health units at local hospitals. The presenter, who also lives with mental illness, provides tips and resources to use after discharge. 

In order for our virtual offerings to be as inclusive as possible, they can be accessed by computer, smartphone, or by calling in on a phone line. Using technology may be a barrier for some; however, for others with transportation issues, caregiving responsibilities or reluctance to leave home, online meetings can be a godsend. As a result, we expect to continue offering online options even when it’s safe to meet in person.

We also have produced a Public Service Announcement, “Mask Germs, Not Emotions,” emphasizing the need for staying socially connected while physically distancing. It demonstrates that many individuals living with mental illness have much to teach others about how to maintain good mental health in the face of crisis. 

(You can watch it at http://www.nami-lv.org/mask-germs-not-emotions/.)

While NAMI’s programs are tremendously valuable supports, anyone struggling with persistent anxiety, depression, or irrational and disturbing thoughts should contact their primary health provider. Persons living with the challenge of a mental health condition need to continue their treatment regime, consulting with medical providers when needed. In addition to seeing patients in person, some offer teletherapy or virtual therapy sessions. Fortunately, most insurance companies will now pay for those services. 

Good mental health is sustained by feeling secure, being emotionally stable, thinking realistically, and interacting safely with others as well as feeling in control of our lives. These keep us steady even during difficult situations. Now in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must consciously prioritize staying safe and healthy and contend with unknowns from day to day, and NAMI’s variety of programs can help those in need do just that.|

Dr. Dennis J. Geiger has had a 30-year career working as a psychologist with the seriously mentally ill at Warren State Hospital in Warren, PA. He retired in 2007 but has maintained his private practice as a licensed psychologist. Dr. Geiger is a board member and past president of NAMI Lehigh Valley.  www.nami-lv.org