Commentary by Deena Baxter, author of “Surviving Suicide: Searching for ‘Normal’ with Heartache and Humor.”

Mental Health Awareness Month in May was an opportune time to honor mental health heroes.

That includes brain science researchers searching for mental health breakthroughs, diagnostic capabilities and patient-specific remedies; first responders who take crisis intervention training courses and learn how to safely defuse a volatile mental health crisis, and the many grass-roots mental health advocates and nonprofits striving locally and nationally to deliver effective mental health programs and services.

Equally important are the courageous children, teens and adults who embrace life to the fullest while living with mental health challenges.

Since launching The Surviving Suicide and Sudden Loss Project in September 2014, in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Collier County, I have met many such heroes.

In sharing their personal stories, they demonstrate levels of commitment and resilience that inspire me.

Our project includes a creative arts website, www.WriteOnMyMind.com, “A safe place for the mind to speak, giving mental illness a life-affirming voice.”

We encourage people affected by mental illness and their caregivers to express their emotions through art drawings, paintings, photography, poetry, prose and music.

For too long, the stigma of mental illness and impairment has kept it cloaked in darkness and denial. This places an additional burden on those who live with it every day, plus their family members and loved ones. Many of these adults, teens and children are seeking to live full, productive lives. They are successfully integrating their mental health challenges into their daily lives but don’t wish to be defined by them.

Anthony Azmitia is one of our NAMI artists and one of my heroes. He is in his late 30s and is a talented artist. He’s articulate, highly observant and has a wonderful, warm sense of humor that often surfaces in his art.

The mediums he uses as “canvases” for many of his pieces are creative and unique: old LP records, bricks, wood blocks and cassette covers, to name a few. He is anchored by caring parents and sustained by his strong religious beliefs. When he lived in New York City, he participated in a structured program that matched him with a roommate and helped him find a job, allowing the two men to live in an apartment with support services available, when needed. He loved the autonomy and he thrived. He dedicated himself to honing his artistic skills and was rewarded when some of his paintings debuted at Pure Vision Arts (http://www.purevisionarts.org/).

Unfortunately, the living arrangement didn’t last and he was forced to move back home. When his parents retired to Southwest Florida, he came with them.

It’s been an adjustment for the family. Thankfully, Azmitia has found a welcoming home away from home at the NAMI-Collier Sarah Ann Adult Drop-In Center.

That’s where I first met him and viewed his artwork. I was very moved by his warm heart, his sensitive, caring nature and his leadership capabilities.

This spring, Caroline Ridgway, a third-generation Southwest Florida business leader and philanthropist, and a handful of sponsors and supporters hosted the Old Naples Arts and Entertainment Event, featuring artwork by artists like Azmitia. It was juried by Kristine and Juliana Meek from Harmon-Meek Gallery. Azmitia sold two pieces and received the best in show blue ribbon. His self-esteem soared and he told me it was his dream come true.

Azmitia’s artwork is displayed at http://www.writeonmymind.com/the-art-gallery/.

The visual arts can be a powerful communicator, beyond words. It can send a message and teach us if we are open to it. Working together, coupled with adequate financial and human resources and effective life-skills programs and services, we can make our communities safer and welcoming for those living with mental health challenges.

There is so much untapped potential — let’s give it a life-affirming voice and wings to fly.

Baxter launched The Surviving Suicide and Sudden Loss Project in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Collier County in 2014. The project’s mission is to promote life-affirming mental wellness. It includes a book, a creative arts website (www.WriteOnMyMind.com), and mental health advocacy and outreach. The book is titled, “Surviving Suicide: Searching for ‘Normal’ with Heartache and Humor.” All profit flows to NAMI of Collier County and other nonprofit mental health organizations.