Room 209 of the Visual Arts Building at Purdue University Fort Wayne is humming with activity on a Tuesday Evening in mid-November.

Barely two months after Mental Health America of Northeast Indiana (MHANI) launched a Peer-Led Art Support Group, the vibe is upbeat, but calm.

The group was formed in September as a way to aid individuals in addressing their mental health challenges by intersecting the world of art with peer support.

The Peer-Led Art Support Group is facilitated by local artists who are advocates for mental health, as well as certified peer support specialists, who manage their own mental health through a variety of self-care routines, including art.

Peer Support Specialist Amanda McNamara talks with a member of the Peer-Led Art Suport Group.

Peer Support Specialist, Amanda McNamara leads the class.

McNamara battles bipolar disorder and fights the stigma surrounding mental health issues every day.

“I’m not bipolar,” she says. “I have bipolar.”

“It’s not who I am, it’s a part of me.”

“I feel it’s that way for anyone who struggles with mental health.”

“It’s not who you are, it’s what you struggle with.”

McNamara found art to be a powerful outlet for her struggles.

“For me, it comes in brush strokes,” she says. “Just to let the lead out and shake off some of the nervousness.”

Amanda McNamara four art to be a powerful outlet for her struggles with bipolar. PHOTO COURTESY JARED CHRISTIANSON

“Amanda has a big personality,” says Cynthia Gabbard, who helps lead the group. “But she can also be calming and chill.”

As a Stevie Wonder song fills the room, McNamara, a passionate music lover, scrolls through a playlist on her iPhone.

“Music helps you breathe,” she says. “It can mean so much more, just like our art.”

“You can turn it up. You can turn it down. You can turn it off.”

“It’s a way for us to keep grooving.”

The music helps set the mood, but art, and the shared struggle with mental health is what brings everyone together.

“It’s extremely important,” says group member Brenda Edwards. “Mental illness can make you feel like you are the most alone and at the lowest part of the deepest, darkest pit, but art can make you feel the opposite.”

Brenda Edwards working on her collage during a Peer-Led Art Support Group at Purdue Fort Wayne.

“Art literally saved my life,” says fellow member Mindful Lee. “I want to connect and be with others and also deepen my practice.”

Gabbard can’t help but smile as she watches the group interact and work on their pieces.

“It’s really fun to see everyone relax and enjoy themselves,” she says. “And lose themselves in the art.”

“That was the objective,” says McNamara. “To find a place where everyone feels welcome, feels safe, and wants to find peace.”

Mindful Lee works on her collage during the Peer-Led Art Support group. Lee says “Art literally saved her life.”

“Purdue Fort Wayne opened their arms to us.”

On this night, the group is leaning about collage, and one of the most famous artists in history.

“We’re learning about Van Gogh tonight,” says McNamara. “We’re talking about Starry Night, one of the most recognizable paintings there is.”

“What his story has meant to a lot of people.”

“His struggle with bipolar.”

“His struggle with depression and anxiety.”

“I feel that by incorporating his story is peer in itself.”

A member of the Peer-Led Art Support group works on his collage of Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night painting.

Edwards says the message hits home.

“Being peer to me means being able to show kindness and share love and influence people in a positive way in a world that can be cold at times, or stigmatized towards people with mental illness.”

“I don’t think there is anything like it anywhere,” says Gabbard. “So, I think it’s kind of special.”

“Just to have peers around that believe in you and encourage you,” says Lee. “I think there is nothing better than that.”

Edwards couldn’t agree more.

A member of the Peer-Led Art Support group works on her collage of Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night painting.

“My peers in this art group have definitely made me feel that I’m not alone and that help is there,” she says. “Art is the power that drives us all forward into being well and living in recovery.”

As the class nears an end, McNamara interacts with group members effortlessly.

A hug here, a laugh there.

Always teaching, encouraging and offering support as she looks admiringly at their pieces of art.

“It’s a three step process,” she says.

“It’s like a cocoon at the start, but it’s going to blossom and grow into their own masterpiece by the end.”

“Just remember to sign it!”

Cynthia Gabbard works on her collage in the Peer-Led Art Support Group at Purdue Fort Wayne.

Many of the artists featured in this story have pieces on display and available for purchase at the fifth annual Art of Hope exhibit.

Art of Hope highlights local artists by sharing their inspiring works about recovery, healing, and hope. The exhibit runs through January 7th in the Visual Art Building at Purdue Fort Wayne.

If you struggle with mental health challenges, MHANI takes a multi-faceted approach to mental health including education services, advocacy efforts, and peer-support programs, all of which are geared towards reducing stigma, advocating for those in need, and providing practical support to individuals striving for mental wellness.

The Peer-Led Art Support group currently meets on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month on the Purdue Fort Wayne Campus, in the Visual Arts Building, in room 209 at 6 p.m.

Additionally, MHANI provides an Anxiety and Depression Support Group, led by a licensed mental health counselor that meets virtually on the 1st and 3rd Tuesday of each month at 6.p.m.