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WonderBus Festival Aims to Spread Mental Health Awareness Through Music

Grant Walters Grant Walters WonderBus Festival Aims to Spread Mental Health Awareness Through MusicPhotos of David Grzelak, the son of The Shipyard Chief Strategy Officer Dave Grzelak, who died by suicide last year.
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The Shipyard will launch its inaugural music and arts showcase on August 17-18 to benefit mental health programs at Ohio State's Wexner Medical Center

With an impressive artist lineup that includes Walk The Moon, X Ambassadors, Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, The Revivalists, Jenny Lewis, Bishop Briggs, Mt. Joy, Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, the inaugural WonderBus Music & Arts Festival will take place on August 17-18.

WonderBus is the realized vision of Columbus marketing engineering agency The Shipyard, spearheaded by the firm’s CEO Rick Milenthal and Managing Partner and Chief Strategy Officer Dave Grzelak.

Rick Milenthal and Dave Grzelak.

While the festival seeks to feed Columbus’ already enthusiastic appetite for great music, WonderBus was created with a specific and important goal: to change the conversation surrounding suicide, depression, and other issues related to mental health in the United States.

For Grzelak, that outcome is deeply personal.

“On March 9 of last year, my son [David] passed by suicide,” he explains. “He was 17, and for a little over two years, my wife and I had been doing everything we could to get him help. He was a very popular, athletic, good-looking kid, and just had suicidal thoughts that he didn’t understand, and didn’t know why he had them.

We went through a process of hospitalizing him in and out, about seven or eight different times. I went to California with him for a period of time, and so on, and so forth. And we were just unsuccessful in finding something that worked.”

After David’s passing, the Grzelaks made the decision to share their story publicly.

Dave and David Grzelak.

“Often times, people feel guilt and shame, and are embarrassed by mental health and suicide and things like that, so they don’t talk about it,” Grzelak says. “We took the other route – seeing our son fight, and seeing how hard we fought, not to be embarrassed or ashamed, and to vocalize our experience and talk about what we went through.”

The response they received was overwhelmingly positive.

“We started talking about it and communicating, and had this national outpouring of support on social media from thousands of people from all around the country who said, ‘hey, thanks for having the courage to talk about something we’ve kept private,’ and, ‘we’ve had a loss and we’re going through something ourselves.’ And that was just a really important moment…how important it is to talk and be open about this topic to create change.

It truly is a national epidemic. When I put things in perspective and understand what my wife and my family went through, you realize there are 130 families every day, on average, who are going through the exact same thing as us.”

According to statistics published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 6.9% of (or 16 million) adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, while 18.1% experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and specific phobias. Only 41% of adults in the United States with a mental health condition received related services in the past year.

NAMI also estimates that just over half of children, ages 8 to 15, with a mental health condition received related services in the previous year. Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters begin by age 24.

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Health will receive a share of profits from WonderBus to support its ongoing programs, which has guaranteed the facility a $50,000 contribution in its first year.

“OSU’s Wexner Medical Center has been with us every step of the way, and they’ve made this their own, really,” Milenthal affirms.

The Shipyard’s partnership with OSUWMC adds to the company’s already active role in promoting mental health awareness initiatives for young people. Previously, they’ve worked alongside Nationwide Children’s Hospital to market their their national #OnOurSleevescampaign.

The idea of using music’s transcendent reach as the vehicle for their cause came when Milenthal and Grzelak were approached by the Elevation Group, which was responsible for the launch and production of Cleveland’s renowned LaureLive Festival four years ago.

“We wanted something that was going to touch a lot of people, and we love music. Music is a universal language,” says Milenthal.

“Music has the ability to bring people together,” adds Grzelak. “And we think the things that are happening in this community with Ohio State and Nationwide Children’s and the effort and commitment they’re making to mental health…if we can just bring community leaders and the community together around this topic, we’ll have a really great opportunity to drive change out of Columbus and have a national impact.”

Milenthal believes strongly that leveraging their company’s communicative expertise will help to bolster the critical work that local organizations like OSUWMC and Nationwide Children’s Hospital are already doing to support mental health awareness and resources in the community.

“We have an anthem around [this] called ‘Communication Can Cure.’ Obviously, what’s most important is what’s happening in medicine, and what’s happening at Ohio State University and Nationwide Children’s Hospital. It’s fantastic. And we’ve learned more – Dave, especially, has learned more about what can happen in medicine. This is a space, and it happens to be a health care space, where words matter, you know? Communication matters a lot – to tell people that there’s hope, that they’re not alone.”

Grzelak agrees. “In the advertising business, we understand how to drive awareness that actually motivates and moves someone, and, so, we decided to take what we’re doing here and what we’ve done in our careers and put it to task to create rapid change in the space.”

In addition to a pilot program that helps families and caregivers of someone who has been hospitalized for suicidal ideation transition back into their home space, The Shipyard has also been working closely with OSUWMC to develop tangible resources people can use to help individuals who may be experiencing mental health issues.

“One of the things we’re working with Ohio State on is creating educational materials, and they’ll be passing out and sharing content at the festival,” says Grzelak.

“One of the kind of analogies that we’re making is that, however many years ago, people didn’t know how to do CPR until there was CPR training. And, so, that’s what we’re kind of taking in terms of the communications mission, aside from bringing the community together and changing conversation and changing stigma, is actual practical tools of what to do and how to interact — almost the equivalent of a mental health or suicide-ology CPR training kit.”

The #LALALA platform, which has been developed for WonderBus, is another way in which Grzelak hopes the festival can promote understanding of person-to-person mental health support mechanisms.

“Listen, Ask, Love, Act, Link, Advocate,” Grzelak explains. “That kind of helps give you a step-by-step process of how to interact with someone that’s dealing with either suicidal thoughts or depression.”

“‘Listen’ is very important,” Milenthal adds. “Because when a loved one, or a friend, or a professional colleague begins to express that they’re depressed about something, our natural inclination is to tell them why they shouldn’t be depressed. ‘Why do you feel like that? You have so much going for you! The whole world is great! Look where you live! You’re loved! Think of all the people in the world who are under worse circumstances than you!’

And, you’re not being critical, but you think, ‘oh, I’m going to fix this. I’m going to have this conversation with Joe, and Joe will feel better.’ And, of course, it’s actually the worst thing we can do, because they shut down.’”

“They feel minimized and isolated,” Grzelak continues. “A lot of our instincts as friends, colleagues, and loved ones is in direct opposition of the right way to interact with someone who’s going through those things. Education is really, really important.”

CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society, has donated the physical space for the festival on their property, located just north of The Ohio State University Campus. The company is also co-sponsoring a VIP event with The Shipyard on Friday, August 16 for members of the Columbus community who helped make the festival possible.

Milenthal hopes that attendees will leave WonderBus deeply impacted by both its music and its message.

“While you’re there with 10,000 people, we’re talking openly about this issue, and we’ll have a physical presence where you can come in and talk about it. We have a long play with this, and we believe it will be a major multi-year Central Ohio event and a beacon for the country.”

WonderBus will take place Saturday, August 17, and Sunday, August 18 at On The Lawn at CAS, 2540 Olentangy River Rd. Single-day general admission and VIP tickets, full weekend general admission and VIP passes, and parking passes are available via the festival’s website

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