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Mental Health The Big Focus Of WonderBus Music Festival

The WonderBus Music Festival takes place in Columbus this weekend featuring more than 20 musicians and bands including Ben Harper, Trombone Shorty and Walk The Moon. But the festival has a deeper purpose beyond music. Organizers are hoping to advance the conversation around mental health and suicide.  Mike Foley reports.

Dave and Elizabeth Grzelak openly share the story of their second oldest child David, who died by suicide last year at the age of 17. 

"He had everything on the outside from a family and lifestyle perspective," Grzelak said about his son. "He was a good-looking kid, athletic, smart and from the outside looked like he had everything. But internally he struggled with anxiety, and anxiety turned to suicidal thoughts. He was hospitalized in and out seven different times. After two and a half years, he lost the energy to keep fighting and passed by suicide. Elizabeth and I, seeing how hard he and we fought, decided pretty quickly that we weren't going to fall into the narrative and stigma that surrounds mental health and anxiety and suicide in our country today. Often times it's surrounded with feelings of shame and embarrassment, and so people don't talk about these conditions. We were proud of David and how hard he fought."  

They partnered with the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center to establish a fund their son's name that assists families meeting challenges in mental health and drug addiction. The topic of mental health also became a catalyst for Grzelak's friend and business partner Rick Milenthal, founder of Columbus-based marketing company The Shipyard.  

"We intended to do something to change the conversation," Milenthal said. "A childhood friend and Columbus native, Cliff Chenfeld, called me. He founded and started a record label in New York that did very well, and he had just sold it. He wanted to bring a music festival to Columbus with the Elevation Group in Cleveland, which had a similar festival in Cleveland called LaureLive that supported a school up there. David and I heard this, and said we're going to help you do this but we're going to do it around mental health."

They were approached with that idea in October of last year. Unlike most festivals, WonderBus came together quickly. C-A-S donated 55-acres of land at its Olentangy River Road headquarters to host the fest. Grzelak says the medical center provided the resources and information. 

"We worked with Ohio State to create a presence at the festival under the theme La La La - Listen Ask Love Act Link Advocate," Grzelak said. "It's a beginning of a tool kit for our community to better understand how to interact with someone who is experiencing anxiety, depression or suicidality. So a fully staffed tent and experience to interact with concert goers and people who are attending the festival." 

Milenthal says those conversations have already started.

"Every CEO and civic leader I talk to is telling me a story about their children or spouse or good friend," Milenthal said. "These are stories they don't tell or share within their companies. But because we are doing something about this and providing a platform that's fun and with the universal language of music, they open up. These are people you would know in the community. I'm obviously not going to share their stories. They're their stories. This is something that's touching everyone, but it's underlying and people don't know how to converse about it."

"Our natural inclination when someone tells us they are depressed is to immediately tell them how great their life is," Milenthal continued. "We have good intentions when we do that. We're trying to uplift them. But that immediately shuts them down. They need to be listened to and loved and be able to openly discuss how they feel."

Grzelak says ever since he and his wife went public with their story, they regularly receive calls from people they don't even know who are looking for some guidance to help a struggling teenager. 

"The biggest thing we do is to reinforce that what they are going through is not unique," Grzelak said. "The loss we experienced with David happens on average 130 times every day to other families, and it's not talked about. The people battling and struggling with these conditions exceeds that number. So it's being empathetic. It's sharing our experience, what we did. More than anything, it's about providing a platform that makes it okay for people to share and express what they're going through. I think our society and our culture needs a stronger tool kit of how to interact with people when they are experiencing these things. We need more acceptance and openness of treating this like a serious condition. When someone has cancer or some other illness, you don't get advice about feeling better. People respond and understand how severe it is, and they appreciate and want to help you fight. If we have that mentality in our country and treat others that way,that will go a long way to making a change and making a difference." 

A special kickoff event takes place Friday night with the WonderBus Festival set for Saturday and Sunday. Milenthal and Grzelak say they hope to grow the event in the coming years. A portion of every festival ticket sold will support new research in the understanding of depression and suicide and provide critical suicide prevention support in central Ohio.

Mike Foley joined WCBE in February 2000, coming from WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Foley has worked in various roles, from producing news and feature stories to engineering Live From Studio A sessions. A series of music features Foley started in 2018 called Music Journeys has grown into a podcast and radio show. He also assists in developing other programs in WCBE's Podcast Experience. Foley hosts The Morning Mix, a weekday music show featuring emerging and established musicians, our Columbus-area and Ohio-based talent, and additional artists that inspire him.