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Wisconsin mental health organization launches virtual support groups to reach rural residents


The COVID-19 pandemic triggered higher rates of depression and anxiety, especially among young adults. But it also prompted some mental health services to become more accessible.

That’s what’s happening this week as Wisconsin’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) launches new statewide, virtual support groups for people experiencing mental illness and their families.

NAMI is an organization dedicated to supporting people affected by mental illness and promoting recovery. One of the ways it does this is by hosting support groups for people dealing with a mental illness and their families.

During the pandemic, many of those support groups met virtually. That went so well that NAMI Wisconsin is now expanding its reach.

“We cover a lot of the state with local NAMI affiliates, but it doesn’t cover the whole state. We also know that even if there is a local NAMI affiliate that can provide support groups, just because they’re local, does not mean they’re close. It could still be an hour, hour and half drive for somebody,” explains Emilie Smiley, NAMI Wisconsin’s program director. “We want to make (support groups) as accessible as possible.”

The virtual support groups will meet once a month. They are free and available to any interested adults in Wisconsin.

That matters because mental illness is widespread.

“We know that one in five people live with a mental illness in the United States,” Smiley says. “Mental health has really come to the forefront since COVID, and we’ve seen a rise in youth and in adults for needs for extra support. What we know is that a support group, even if it’s not a professional provider, can provide a space for support and community, and people who feel supported often have better mental health outcomes in the end.”

Support groups aren’t always easily accessible, though, especially in rural areas, like parts of northern Wisconsin.

Offering support groups virtually changes that.

“Individuals in rural areas don’t have as much access to care, whether that be mental health or physical health,” Smiley says. “We want to provide a space that anyone, regardless of where they live, can access.”

NAMI Wisconsin’s virtual support groups start this week. Smiley says there is still space for new participants. Registration information can be found at NAMIwisconsin.org.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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