Every day since March 2020, Robin Livingston-Richter has posted a topic to a private Facebook page, devoting nearly eight hours each day early on to starting conversations and giving support.
The page is called Mental Health Navigators: Parents Helping Parents. Livingston-Richter, who is a therapist and life coach, asks questions about dealing with stress, practicing self-care and modeling that care for one's children. Sometimes, she'll offer parents recommendations for other mental health providers, advice or simply a comforting ear.
And sometimes, she simply asks, "How are you doing?"
While the page has been up since 2018, the need for it has grown exponentially since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Parents and children alike continue to struggle with the nearly yearlong reality of canceled school, plans and normalcy. The group, which began as a gathering of just eight moms around a coffee table in the west metro has grown into a nonprofit of more than 1,700 parents from across Minnesota and around the country.
Livingston-Richter, a mom of two, said the group is devoted to making sure no parent or family feels alone.
"Every time I connect with anyone who's a part of the Mental Health Navigator community, I always smile so big because I feel like we have this amazing community of committed parents who really want to make a difference," Livingston-Richter said.
The group's members were rocked by several mental health crises long before the pandemic's added adverse impacts.
In 2016, Toni Plante, of Minnetonka, lost her daughter to suicide. Since then, she's been raising awareness surrounding teen mental health.
"Right away, I got pretty active about suicide and mental health," said Plante, one of the group's founders.
Cathy Rude, of Excelsior, is another parent willing to be open about mental health. She reached out to Plante and the two mothers began brainstorming a path forward for the community, where parents could connect with one another.
"I just realized there were a lot of parents who were very isolated, very alone, and all going through the same struggle with a mental health concern with their child," Rude said.
On the site, parents post questions specifically about their child or familial situation. Some families are struggling with distance learning, others have children feeling left out while unable to spend time with friends. Still more are struggling with depression and anxiety. Members of the group can also chime in to offer fellow parents support.
For greater connection, the group holds meetings on Zoom once a month.
Minneapolis therapist Annette Schulz said it's important for everyone to remember that the pandemic is a unique time, and it's necessary to approach things differently.
"I think [the pandemic] has exacerbated any pre-existing stressors, either individually or relationally," Schulz said. For that reason, she said coping strategies are more important than ever, starting with basic self-care like spending time outside, getting proper nutrition and doing enjoyable activities.
Schulz suggests picking up a hobby or another form of self-expression like art, singing or cooking. Though people may not feel quite as social these days, she encourages parents to try to build connections and spend as little time as possible engaging in behaviors that make them feel worse.
"Let go of self-judgment. Take things one thing at a time in the moment," Schulz said. "Focus on overall well-being and making moments in our day-to-day lives more palatable."
Having a group of like-minded parents to connect with has resonated with group members. The organizers hear success stories from parents several times a week, said Livingston-Richter.
"Sharing one's vulnerability gives other people permission to share their vulnerability," she said. "We get that a lot from parents. Parents thank us, they tell us their story, they talk about successes. They talk about the safety that's involved in our group."
To join the Mental Health Navigators: Parents Helping Parents, find the group on Facebook.
Additional resources exist for families or teens seeking assistance with mental health issues. Contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota online or by phone at 1-888-NAMI-Helps and the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health online or by phone at 1-800-528-4511. Learn more about COVID-19 mental health resources from the state.
Zoë Jackson covers young and new voters at the Star Tribune through the Report For America program, supported by the Minneapolis Foundation. 612-673-7112 • @zoemjack