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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On Saturday, Tower Park was quiet. It was supposed to host the NAMI Walk of Greater Kansas City, an event that sheds light on mental illness in the community. It was one of nearly 100 planned NAMI walks across the United States.  

But it didn’t happen.  

Kansas City is under a stay-at-home order, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues; walking to shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of strangers is not allowed.

But some parts of the Kansas City metro – and outside the metro – are lifting their stay-at-home order in the coming days. Experts said many people will be happy to leave their homes and gather in small groups. However, there is a subset of people who are worried about those people coming out of their homes.

Via Zoom Saturday, NAMI Kansas Executive Director Sherrie Vaughn didn’t mince words.  

“I believe we’re going to see more individuals who are experiencing more anxiety, more depression, and greater levels of stress,” she said.

It’s well documented that some health care workers are struggling with their mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are other, less obvious industries with concerns. Vaughn listed off a few: grocery stores, gas stations, drive-through restaurants and stand-alone restaurants.  

“Whether it was helping them get their food, helping them get supplies or helping them with medical care or helping them with mental health care, all of those are essential workers on the front lines,” Vaughn said. “Everyone of them – whether they were bagging groceries or they are providing teletherapy as a mental health worker- all of them have experience some form of trauma and anxiety and stress during this time… in that, I do believe we’re going to see an increase in anxiety, stress, depression, suicidal ideation, as people try to find a new place.”

Last fall, NAMI Kansas received roughly 90 calls to its hotline. Last month, that number more than quadrupled. As more venture out in the coming days, NAMI Kansas expects to see many others struggling with their mental health.  

That’s why NAMI Kansas is launching online support services. It will use it’s volunteer Connection Leaders it already has across Kansas to offer support to people who are experiencing similar things.

“We believe that our NAMI Kansas Connection Leaders are in a unique position to be a lifeline and presence to and for our Front Line Essential Workers across the State of Kansas,” Vaughn said. “By offering online NAMI Connection support groups geared specifically for these workers, we can be that life line and presence in their lives. Our NAMI Kansas Connection Leaders who have volunteered to be a part of this new service recognize this great need and how we can reach into the lives of those who are on the front lines, serving us and others.”

“We’re there to be a support, to let the individual know… that they are not alone, and that they have peers who have made this journey just like they are making this journey now, and they are there to help them, and walk with them through that,” she added.

NAMI Kansas said it took some heavy lifting because they had to make sure everything was completely confidential – no Zoombombing – but also that there is help for those who need it.

Find more information about NAMI Connection on their website.

As more people start to venture out, there are ways to help those front line workers feel more comfortable.

“Typically we probably don’t have a mask on, right? They can see a smile. They can see your eyes sparkle. They can hear us say ‘thank you so much for being here and doing this and serving the way that you’re serving, and I just want you to know that I appreciate you,’ and that goes along long way.”

Vaughn said research shows humans need 10 positive touches a day to keep a healthy mindset. She said smiles would work in lieu of actual touching.

She added that we must really respect people’s personal space, making sure to keep that six feet of distance.  

“Be more so aware of your own self and what you were doing and how you’re contributing to the greater good rather than contributing to the greater bad,” she said.

Some NAMI walks are taking place virtually across the country. You can search to see when your area NAMI Walk will happen on NAMI’s website.