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NAMIWalks: Raising awareness of mental health, ending the stigma still important in era of COVID-19

By Francie Williamson, Communications Coordinator, Department of Psychiatry

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year, faculty and staff from the University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry are working to raise $10,000 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Each year, participants in the local NAMI Walk raise tens of thousands of dollars so NAMI can provide mental health services in Johnson and Linn Counties. The 16th annual walk originally was scheduled for May 2 at Terry Trueblood Recreation Area in Iowa City, but was called off due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, through the newly named NAMIWalks Your Way, participants are being encouraged to post to social media on May 30 about how they are choosing to raise mental health awareness. It doesn’t have to be through a walk, either. Participants can knit, or garden, or even read a book.  

Fundraising continues

Those who were planning to participate in the walk continue to raise funds.

Erin Kay, who for four years has served as walk manager for the local NAMI chapter, stresses the walking part has always been secondary.

“It’s about coming together as a community and ending the stigma surrounding mental health,” Kay says.

Dana Cook, nursing practice leader for psychiatry at UI Hospitals and Clinics, has been a team captain for the past five years and has personally helped raise more than $4,500 for NAMI during that time.

“Ending the stigma of mental illness is really important to me,” Cook says. “Mental health is just as important as physical health. One in five adults experience mental illness, and the money that is raised at the walk is used to support, educate and advocate for families and individuals who are impacted by mental illness.”

University of Iowa plays a role

Peggy Nopoulos, MD, chair of the University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry, was named the honorary chair of this year’s walk.

During a kickoff event, before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, Nopoulos stressed that there continues to be an epidemic of ignorance about mental illness.

“I think we’ve come such a long way in understanding and knowing better about the foundation of mental illness,” Nopoulos said. “But I can tell you, the stigma still exists.”

Kay says making Nopoulos the honorary chair seemed like a natural alliance.

“Having Peggy be involved and spearheading it has just been phenomenal,” Kay says. “The department has always been involved in fundraising but I definitely think it’s ramped up this year because of Peggy’s involvement.”

The university has partnered with NAMI for years on resources and training. Kay says a group of nursing students regularly assist at the R Place Pure Wellness Center.

“We’ve had nurses come in and do cooking presentations, we’ve had them come in and talk about medications that you’re taking,” Kay says. “They’ve also facilitated discussion with our support group for people with mental illness.”

As Iowans continue to stay at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kay says everyone is experiencing the impact of isolation, and the need for mental health services is as strong as ever.

“Beyond what’s happening currently with current events, we still need people out here, advocates coming together to say, ‘hey we need to make mental health a priority’,” Kay says. “Because people, they need the resources, they need the help and NAMI is here.”

Wednesday, May 13, 2020