When I first learned that my sister had a mental illness, I was shocked. I didn't understand how that could happen. My sister suffered a serious head injury, which led to a mental illness diagnosis. After years of struggling and learning to live with this "new normal," she is now a mental health advocate and volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Right now, most people are focusing on the physical aspects of COVID-19, but public health professionals will tell you there is no health without mental health.

This year has been emotionally difficult for nearly everyone. Nationwide research has shown the levels of anxiety and depression are higher than they were last year. There are a myriad of contributing factors, including the fear of contracting COVID-19, economic challenges, job loss, health disparities and inequalities and the issue of racial injustices. All of these factors will have a negative impact on a person's mental health.

Many events have unfolded rapidly during the past nine months, across the country and in our lives. So many variable initiatives and opinions. All of which are overwhelming. But one thing is for sure: the mental health crisis, already a significant issue before the pandemic, has stranded too many people at an emotional crossroad. For many, it is a matter of survival.

People living with a mental illness need help and hope. They need a community that supports them, their families and their recovery. NAMI works every day to save every life. Our programs and services impact lives in meaningful ways, at no cost to participants.

NAMI Kern County is part of the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for individuals affected by mental illness through education and support services.

This year has been anything but normal. We at NAMI understand what people are going through because we have been there. We were here to help before the pandemic. We are here to help now. And we want to be there for people who need us after the pandemic.

For the past 14 years, NAMIWalks Kern County brought together thousands of people to raise awareness and funds. This year, NAMI is going to be different, but it will still be fun! On Oct. 10, NAMI Kern County will be hosting NAMIWalks Your Way: A National Day of Hope. Notably, this day also marks World Mental Health Day, and the last day of Mental Illness Awareness Week. This year's theme is Mental Health for All.

Instead of walking a 5K at a local park with thousands of people, participants will choose an activity of their choice and join virtually with 70 NAMI affiliates and thousands of other mental health advocates across the country.

Many participants still plan to walk, using their treadmill, going outside in their backyard or to their neighborhood park. Others plan to practice yoga or another activity they enjoy. We are asking everyone to register for NAMIWalks, take a photo participating in an activity, post on social media and tag us at #namikern. We want to flood social media with words of hope and encouragement for those impacted by mental health challenges.

One in five adults experience mental illness, but it touches five in five people either directly or indirectly. Now, more than ever, we want to encourage our community to come together, to raise awareness and let people know they are not alone. In a time of challenge and change, we can unite even while social distancing. Mental health is not for some; mental health is for all.

To join NAMIWalks Your Way, visit namiwalks.org/kerncounty. There is no registration fee, but fundraising is encouraged. Funds raised support local programs and services.

Sharon Woolfolk is a retired probation officer and currently serves as the executive director of Youth Connection and president of NAMI Kern County.