IRON RANGE — A new recovery support group for adults living with a diagnosed mental illness is set to host their first meeting Wednesday at Project Care Free Clinic in Virginia.

The group, known as NAMI Connection, is supported by the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota, a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul dedicated to improving the lives of children and adults with mental health issues and their families through education. The new Virginia group is expected to become the seventh of its kind in the state, according to NAMI’s website.

The 90-minute meetings will be held weekly and are free to the public. They’re also peer-led by trained individuals who are also in recovery. Tod Swenson told the Hibbing Daily Tribune during a phone interview last week that he’s excited to be one of two facilitators leading the Iron Range initiative.

“It's not a therapeutic group — it’s strictly for empathy, understanding, problem-solving and the social benefits of being with other people with mental illness,” Swenson said. “The point of it is that there's no shaming or blaming within the group.”

A Range native, Swenson is a veteran who experienced his first manic episode at age 19. As someone who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he understands the challenges of living with a mental illness. Yet it was his experience that inspired him to reach out to NAMI in St. Paul in hopes that he could start a volunteer-run Connection group in the Northland. It was his way of giving back to his community.

“It’s for anybody who has a mental illness diagnosis — men or women — and there’s no fee,” he said. “You don’t have to be associated with any clinics or getting treatment from a specific place, either.”

Swenson completed a two-day facilitator training this spring and learned that one of the objectives of the group is to “celebrate good times and be there during bad ones.” Another is to share insights and experiences to give those attending the support and the knowledge that they are not alone. Swenson added that after the introductions and group discussions, every meeting ends on a positive note with members making gratitude lists. As for Swenson, he says he’s grateful for the staff at Project Care Free Clinic who agreed to lend him the space for hosting the weekly meetings.

“It was amazing,” he said. “Whether it’s a higher power or greater love or God, these things happen that grow these things for good. That’s why it’s in Virginia. It’s such a good fit, a good partner.”

Morgan Caldwell, a peer programing coordinator with NAMI Minnesota, told the HDT on Monday afternoon that the group is a unique opportunity to connect with others living with mental illness and that she looks forward to seeing attendance grow as word spreads.

“What is wonderful about the group is there’s so much discrimination when it comes to mental illness, so it provides a space where people can come and where they don’t feel alone,” Caldwell said. “There they are talking and people are nodding their heads because the others are getting it. That’s what we provide. That’s what’s important.”

Nate Bjelland of Mountain Iron responded to Swenson’s call for a co-facilitator of the group. “I was dealing with my own mental health issues and wanted to help others,” he told the HDT when explaining how he also completed the facilitator training in the spring.” Others have helped me that’s why I took the peer support training.”

Meetings are scheduled for Wednesdays from 6-7:30 p.m. beginning Wednesday at Project Care Free Clinic in Virginia, which is located at First Street S, Suite 106, in the US Bank Building Lower Level breakroom (first door on the left). No registration is required.

“We’ll see how big it is,” Swenson said. “What I like about the group, too, is NAMI is pretty big, so they put resources in to see what works and what doesn’t. They've developed and tested this model and know that it works.”

For more information about the group, contact Swenson at 218-464-2265.

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