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December 7, 2022

6/30/2020 7:29:00 AM
COVID-19 shifts mental health awareness to the forefront
NAMI Northern Lakes continues to provide support
Stephanie Kuski
River News features reporter

Nearly four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many Northwoods residents continue to wage daily battles with anxiety, depression and related mental illnesses. At their side is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Northern Lakes, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that provides support, public education and advocacy to individuals and families in Oneida, Vilas and Forest counties who are living with mental illness.

The organization's Northern Lakes Center drop-in facility on Stevens Street in Rhinelander offers a safe space, free of charge, for those living with mental illness seeking support services and social activities while local volunteers affiliated with the organization advocate for the rights and interests of those populations, while also providing emotional support, education and other resources to families and friends of those individuals.

When the state's Safer At Home order went into effect in late March, NAMI temporarily closed the Northern Lakes Center but, despite the lack of physical presence, staff have continued to serve the community remotely throughout the pandemic.

The organization continues to offer its NAMI Family Support Group via monthly Zoom meetings, in addition to their Peer Support Chat available via phone.

Northern Lakes Center staff are also methodically staying in touch with members via phone, postcards, mail and video chat, NAMI Northern Lakes Executive Director Mick Fiocchi noted.

For so many who are coping with mental illness on top of COVID-related stress, NAMI's support services have been crucial, he added.

"Stigma operates within families and within people who are mentally ill," Fiocchi said. "There are a lot of families who just distance themselves from a person whose behavior they don't understand. Instead of finding out, instead of maintaining a compassionate heart and helping that person, they just walk away."

For that reason, mental illness is a family-wide illness, but the surrounding stigma is a barrier for many.

While those who have family members with diabetes, for example, often know how to help that person in a diabetic crisis, it's not always the same case in a mental health crisis.

"Brain disorders, what we refer to as mental illnesses, are exactly the same as any other illness that besets humanity," Fiocchi explained. "There's a genetic predisposition; as you go through your life, something triggers that illness and now it's manifested in your life."

"The one difference between mental illness and all those other diseases is that they're much more prevalent," he continued. "Twenty percent of the population seeks treatment for mental illness every year. Twenty percent. Every year. Year in, year out."

Because so many within our community - friends, neighbors, family - seek these services, their necessity becomes undeniable.

Every month, NAMI asks members to fill out a brief survey, asking if, in the last month, they sought support services at the Northern Lakes Center rather than seeking crisis counseling or hospitalization.

Because fees for the latter are often paid for by the Tri-County Human Service Center (which is funded by taxpayer dollars), by their estimates, in 2019 NAMI Northern Lakes Center saved approximately $35,000 to $200,000 in unnecessary medical costs by providing support services to members free of charge.

That doesn't include the cost to local law enforcement agencies for transporting individuals in crisis, Fiocchi noted.

As an example, if an individual were to experience a mental health crisis, oftentimes 911 is called. A law enforcement officer would likely escort the individual to the mental health unit at St Mary's Hospital. If that unit is full, sometimes officers will drive as far as Oshkosh in search of an open bed, and once they're released, the officer must drive all the way there and back again to transport the individual home.

Although those numbers were not included in the costs saved last year, they add up quickly. For that reason, NAMI has been involved in presenting Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) to local law enforcement agencies for the past two years.

Since law enforcement officers often encounter individuals experiencing mental health crises, being aware of the warning signs is important for everyone involved.

Fiocchi said he has had Rhinelander police officers approach him after the CIT to thank him.

"I know the people in this community know so much more about mental illness than before we started this NAMI chapter, and that's because of us," Fiocchi said. "It's very gratifying."

Due to the many challenges COVID-19 has presented to nonprofit organizations across the community, NAMI asked community members in their May newsletter to consider a monetary donation in support of their Northern Lakes Center and all of the programs they offer. For more information about donations, or to inquire about support services offered, call (715) 369-4740.

Stephanie Kuski can be reached via email at

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