Peer Led Art Program at NAMI Toledo

Peer Led Art Program at NAMI Toledo

Art is more than something that hangs on a wall. In Toledo, art is helping people with mental illness get in touch with their feelings, communicate with others, and improve their self-esteem.

The Creative Expressions program pioneered by NAMI of Greater Toledo is engaging about 1,000 people each year in a variety of volunteer-led art activities. Started in 2014, the program allows people to express themselves through art, make a connection, and grow positive skills, according to Kristen L. Zientek, program coordinator for NAMI of Greater Toledo.

Funded in part through the Mental Health Services and Recovery Board of Lucas County, Creative Expressions began working with adults, children and families in the criminal justice system as well as the Latino population. However, it has now expanded dramatically to include Toledo Public Schools, LGBT teens, runaway teens and individuals with developmental disabilities, Zientek said.
While peer-led, Creative Expressions has a licensed art therapist, Carol Coder, on board with the program.

Zientek said volunteers pick a theme, usually one related to mental health support, such as self-esteem. The art projects evolve from the theme, such as one where participants added affirming statements to mirrors to look at themselves in a more positive way.

“At the end, they share a little bit about their projects. They are talking about their projects, but they’re really talking about themselves as well,” Zientek said. “Sometimes people can express themselves with colors and images better than words.”

About 1,000 people are involved in 13 on-going art groups, with some folks involved in more than one group.

Doing art in a no-pressure, no-judgment environment “reduces stress, helps builds connections with others who might be isolated. It’s free and all materials are provided,” she said. “There’s not a lot of programs that are free and fun. A lot of people say they like that it’s peer-led. They feel like are part of something. It helps empower them. If they’re hesitant about something, it helps them step out of their comfort zone.”
Sarah Bradish, a volunteer with Creative Expressions and NAMI, said she started in July of 2016. “Since NAMI has helped me get through so much of my mental health wellness journey, I figured it was time for me to give back.”

Sarah said volunteering with Creative Expressions “gave me hope on sharing what talents I have with our community…. It helped me come out of my shell and eased my transition of being in public. The program helped me grow to be a consistent dependable person. It also prepared me to use important life skills of working with others and troubleshoot problems as needed.”

The growth Sarah experienced through NAMI helped her to begin working again at a part-time job, she said. She continues to volunteer with Creative Expressions “because the community needs a program like this. There are a lot of creative people out there that need more than a ‘talk’ support group. It is great seeing people of all ages learn a new skill, help them open up, ask questions, break the stigma, and learn that there are people like me that can get healthy and contribute. I’m so thankful for this program! It is truly a life-changing experience. I thought being diagnosed with a mental illness would keep me from having a better life. I am proof that people can change, learn new ideas, learn new skills, and lead by example.”

For a video look at the Creative Expressions program, follow this link:

More information about Creative Expressions is available by calling NAMI of Greater Toledo at 419 243-1119 or online at

Advocacy in Action: NAMI Brown County

Written By: Alan Johnson, NAMI Ohio Contract Writer 

Danei Edelen was a nervous wreck the day she was to return to work after having a mental health crisis that required hospitalization.

“I was so scared. I laid out all my clothes and took a shower the night before to be as ready as possible. I woke up extra early to have time to ‘just be ready,’ she wrote.

On the way to work, she thought, “What am I going to say to these people? ‘Hi! I just had a psychotic break, what’s going on in your life?’”

She worried what her new co-workers would say around the coffee pot, if they would think of her like a patient from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But minute by minute, day by day, month by month, Edelen regained her confidence and footing on the job and in life in general.

Now she is executive director of the Brown County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Ohio. She helped create the NAMI affiliate a year ago in the rural county with few mental health service providers, but people with needs like everywhere else in the state.

“I am a thoroughly middle class mother in the heartland of Ohio,” she said  “This is who I am. I was angry at the world for an extremely long time. I would verbally lash out.”

But with the help of medication, counseling, and the support of family and friends, Edelen is doing the work she wants to do – helping and inspiring others. Her seven-year journey from a breakdown to the present was bumpy, she said. She felt alone and isolated at first.

“When you walk off that psych ward, it’s like there is this red cloak with every word for crazy written on it.”

Edelen said it’s vital that people get connected to mental health providers and to NAMI. “You are not alone. That is the message,” she said

Deanna Vietze, executive director of the Brown County Board of Mental Health & Addiction Services, said Edelen came to her with the idea of forming a NAMI chapter.     “The way she found NAMI was very positive,” Vietze said. “She wanted to help others.”

“She’s able to share her story and give others the hope it’s not a death sentence, that you can overcome and be a functioning member of society. It gives them a voice. They know when they’re going through something she’s been there as well.”

Vietze said rural Ohio has the same mental health issues as urban areas, but fewer resources and a problem with transportation.

On top of those concerns, people in Appalachian Ohio “learn you pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You don’t go to others for help. That often means there are families with years of untreated mental illness,”

Edelen, who lives with her husband on 13.5 acres in Brown County, is devoted to helping end the stigma of mental illness by speaking out.

“Silence does not aid understanding,” she wrote. “That is why I have come ‘out of the closet’ about my mental illness. That is why I am a presenter for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I am committed to ending the silence.”

Finding Hope in Recovery

Written By: Alan Johnson, NAMI Ohio Contract Writer

The voices in his head and hallucinations had haunted Wesley Walker incessantly for months by the time he found himself on the fifth floor of a parking garage.

The date was Jan. 3, 2013.

Suffering from chronic depression and schizoaffective disorder, Walker’s mental illness told him he was in a coma, perhaps in the hospital. He wanted to wake up, to snap out of it, to get his life back.

“I thought I could hit my head hard enough, maybe I’ll wake up,” Walker recalls thinking. At the parking garage, “I remember jumping off and falling and right before I hit I blacked out.”

For most people, that would have been the end. But miraculously – and perhaps for a greater purpose – Walker survived his leap. However, he experienced severe injuries, including a broken ankle, knee cap, femur and extensive facial damage.

Walker, now 28, today is an advocate with NAMI Ohio, telling the story of his remarkable mental health journey to school groups and others, focusing on suicide prevention and mental health awareness.

“I had this disorder since sixth grade. I consider myself very lucky,” Walker said in an interview.

One of Walker’s primary themes is “ending the silence…I tell them you are never alone in what you’re going to do. Being alone is the easiest way to get in a dark spot.”

“I want to help people before they are where I was at and do that leap,” he said.

Karen Cousins, program director for NAMI Franklin County and a NAMI Ohio board member, has worked closely with Walker to help him get out his story.

“He works at the Ending the Silence program where he goes to schools and he talks with police crisis teams. He wants to tell people what he’s gone through so he can help others,” Cousins said. “Everybody doesn’t get that second chance.”

“I think he was spared to be an advocate,” she continued. “He understands his illness. When people hear his story, it’s like “if he can do it, maybe I can give it a shot’”

Born in New York City, Walker’s family moved to Ohio when he was an infant, settling in the Hilliard area. He said he had poor social skills and experienced difficulty relating to others beginning at a young age. After high school, he attended Heidelberg University in Tiffin, but did not graduate.

By 2012, Walker was suffering from deepening depression and, although he didn’t know what it was at the time, his schizoaffective disorder was kicking in with accompanying voices in his head, delusions and hallucinations. His delusions were frighteningly real; he believed a co-worker was Jesus and imagined the tendons were being ripped out of his body.

He was hospitalized several times, went to a drug rehabilitation program, having lied to his parents that he was using drugs when he wasn’t. It was easier, he thought at the time, than telling them what was really going on in his head.

For four agonizing years, Walker went without medication, struggling through relationships with his family and friends, bouncing between jobs, and at one point becoming homeless. While his recollections of those years is hazy, Walker knows he was maced after an altercation in a bar, and later suffered a psychotic break from reality.

Finally, in 2016, Walker was prescribed an anti-psychotic medication that worked for him, beginning a recovery journey that continues to this day. Through it all, his family was tolerant, enduring and patient because as Walker puts it “they didn’t know what was going on either and after each delusion/episode my family continued to support me.”

While medication helped, Walker credits a song by the British musical group Mumford & Sons with helping him bring clarity and focus to his life. “It spoke to me, word for word. I still listen to it today.”

“The Cave” says in part:

 And I will hold on hope and I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again

Chris’s Story

If you suggest to Chris Tigner that he’s a mental health success story, he’s more likely to tell you he’s a work in progress.

“I never look at myself as being more advanced than others. We’re all in this together. My journey is not over,” the 33-year-old Perry County resident said. “That makes me push that much harder. I try to encourage people every day that you can live with mental illness.”

Tigner, who lives in News Straitsville in southern Perry County, struggled with a brain disorder that showed up in a fixation on his body imagine. While he always appeared to be in good shape to others, Tigner considered himself too heavy, and was constantly exercising and starving himself to lose weight. The disorder turned into anorexia, at one point resulting in hospitalization. He was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with anxiety and depression issues.

When he was released from the hospital, Tigner was referred to Allwell Behavior Health Services in New Lexington where he has been a client now for eight years.

“When I started, I really didn’t think much of it. I said, ‘I’ll try this out and see what it’s like.’ At first, I wasn’t to too hip to the idea. I just went because I had doctor’s orders. After a while, I became more open minded and got involved in day treatment and group therapy.”

Tigner’s persistence paid off and he soon found himself wanting to help others dealing with brain disorders and the stigma that frequently accompanies them. He got involved in a recovery summit in Zanesville and more recently started a similar event in Perry County. He also volunteers as a peer specialist to help others.

As a long-time drummer in various bands, Tigner uses his musical experience to help with classes and events, including music therapy.

“A big driving force behind the things I’ve done has been my faith,” Tigner added. “About the same time I got out of the hospital and started my recovery journey I started going back to church.”

“This is one of life’s journeys. Once you start this, you’ve got to stay on that track and keep going.”

Paul Quinn, executive director of NAMI Six County, praised Tigner as an active peer counselor and a “high visibility advocate for mental health.”

Success stories like Tigner’s are important because they “show people that recovery is possible,” Quinn said. “A lot of people have the perception that if you have a brain disorder, they disregard you. These stories dispel some of those myths and help the public see they’re not that much different than anyone else.”

Quinn, who also teaches college courses, said he sees progress in the fight against the stigma of mental health disorders. In the past, when he discussed the topic with his classes, few if any students acknowledged they or someone in their family experienced mental health issues. Recently, 21 of 22 students said publicly they had personal experience with brain disorders, Quinn said.

“Ignorance is still alive and well, but the stigma is lessening,” Quinn said. “I know for a fact it is.”