A second coronavirus wave and a recent layoff have 22-year-old Kayla Harrison hunkering down to keep her grandparents safe, but doing so invites some unwanted guests: manic depression and anxiety.

Feeling lost and disconnected, Harrison searched online for mental health support groups. When she didn't find many options where she lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, she looked to the United States and found Hope in a Hopeless World, a peer-led mental health support group based in Minnesota.

"Am I the only Canadian in this Zoom? Is it OK for me to be in these calls?" were some of Harrison's first thoughts, she recalled. But it wasn't long before she felt a sense of connection, "a touch of reality" she needed, even if it was through a screen with people several hundred miles away.

Group co-founders Elizabeth Frisk of Monticello and Crystal Wimpf­heimer of Elk River are meeting the moment of exacerbated mental illness amid the pandemic by going virtual with the support group they formed two years ago — not realizing then what a lifeline it would be now during these months of isolation, stress and lockdowns.

The group started with three people meeting in the Monticello Community Center; it has grown to more than 300 people, and dozens attend virtual weekly meetings. Though most participants are from Minnesota — there are groups in St. Michael, Hutchinson and Ramsey — its reach is expanding to Canada and Washington state.

Frisk, who works in insurance, and Wimpfheimer, a social worker, are moms living with mental illness. They volunteer their time to lead the meetings, which are free to attend. The only requirement is that attendees are adults living with a mental health issue, though they don't need a formal diagnosis.

The women crossed paths through a church coffee talk and shared how they struggled with mental illness. Frisk had wanted to start a support group since attending one when she was diagnosed with postpartum depression but said she didn't have the courage to do it alone. With Wimpfheimer's professional and personal experience in mental health, they teamed up to help others.

Meetings operate like Alcoholics Anonymous, with introductions in the beginning followed by time to share personal stories. At a recent Tuesday night meeting, several people said they lost a loved one to COVID-19. Another woman found out she was losing Social Security income and didn't know how to pay her bills.

"I've been a basket case the last few weeks, even on medication. No motivation ... like I'm at ground zero," one man said.

Harrison said she appreciates other group members just listening, not diagnosing or treating her like a patient. She is comforted by hearing others' struggles and how they find ways to forge ahead.

"This is all a struggle for us, and I feel like it's a push for us to understand what will be better and what we can change about ourselves to be in a better state of mind," she said. "Everything can be better after this because it's hard for all of us."

Across Minnesota, mental health organizations are seeing demand for online resources — a trend that might continue even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Numbers have skyrocketed on the Mental Health Minnesota website, which provides free, anonymous online mental health screenings. In March, 500 people completed screenings; in both October and November, screenings exceeded 3,000, according to Executive Director Shannah Mulvihill.

Mulvihill said not only are screenings on the rise, but the severity of symptoms has also increased with more people saying they've considered self-harm or suicide.

"It's our hope that use of services does increase because clearly there's a large number of people identifying they are struggling," she said. "There's nothing wrong with seeking help, and there are a variety of ways to do that."

The organization in April created a COVID-19 care support line (833-HERE4MN) to serve those in health care, teachers and essential workers. It's staffed by mental health professionals volunteering their time and will continue as long as needed, Mulvihill said.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota offers 27 online support groups after transitioning to virtual at the end of April. Executive Director Sue Abderholden said online support groups eliminate barriers for people who lack transportation or live in rural areas, as well as potential wait lists to see a licensed therapist or counselor.

The website Fast Tracker MN, which provides appointment availability in real time for substance abuse and mental health, in the past month has experienced a 54% increase in use, support specialist Samantha Meulemans said.

Abderholden said calls to NAMI Minnesota are up 35%, and the majority of requests are from employers concerned about the mental health of their employees.

"The longer [the pandemic] has gone on, the harder it's been," she said. "We're having a normal reaction to an abnormal world."

Hope in a Hopeless World intends to continue offering online meetings even when in-person meetings are allowed again. They also hope to launch as a nonprofit.

"We have been told by people that come to our group that they felt at the end of their rope and if they didn't come to our group they didn't know what they were going to do," Frisk said. "That's a pretty heavy thing to hear, but it's also super rewarding."

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751