TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) Heartsick after her husband died, Michelle Shinaver plunged into despair.

Two weeks after the funeral, she isolated herself. Without the light of her life by her side, darkness was her companion.

"I couldn't go to the grocery store," she said.

A year later, Shinaver still struggles with the pain of her loss, but she's better. Much better, thanks in large part to paint.

Shinaver and other Lucas County residents who are in a treatment program for mental illness don't walk away from their troubles. They sit down at a table with them. Using brushes and buttons, sequins and seashells, rope and ribbon, they put the blush on a rose, the sparkle on paper snowflakes. They paint, sketch and create, and they heal.

Art therapy is a key component of the Genesis Partial Hospitalization Program which serves adults in severe psychiatric crisis. In the program's studio, clients can color their worlds, and as they experience creative expression, continue their recovery.

Whether they make masks, create collages or decorate dream catchers, clients come away from the studio with more than something to frame or put on the wall.

Recovery skills, such as observation, evaluation, option exploration and decision making, grow stronger through art. And through sharing a glue stick, a sheet of paper, a kind word connections click, and stick. "Art instills hope," said Carol Coder, an art therapist in the Genesis program conducted at Unison Behavioral Health Group.

"It helps them interrupt dangerous, unsafe behaviors. It helps them find new safer, healthier choices that they can make, and it helps people believe that they can do something that they didn't think was possible."

Genesis, launched in 1996, provides intensive outpatient service to adults with serious mental illness. Individuals who participate in the Genesis program often face severe stressors such as trauma, loss, violence, homelessness, depression and addiction. The program's goal is to help clients stabilize, regain hope and develop effective coping skills. The group-based treatment program includes art therapy.

Support during the group-based program gives clients something to embrace, and as they grasp the reality that others care, they start to understand, and appreciate, the fact that, yes, they can get better.

Earlier this winter, as clients made snowflakes, they honed skills: steadiness of hand, repetition, patience and persistence. After studying the snowflake, clients gained courage to more directly study themselves through self-portrait drawing.

Participants join the program through referrals, or they come in on their own, said Cathy Ruffer, Genesis manager. "We want people to speak up for themselves and say they want help and want to get better and they want to be part of something," she said.

In the studio, nothing is just black and white. Life lessons blend with art lessons.

Coder recalled when a group of clients decorated gloves, a project designed to raise awareness of what hands can do on a positive basis. Some clients are painfully aware of hands that break noses and break up families, or bruise bodies and souls.

During the project, clients practiced "actually reaching out to others," Coder said. They shook hands, not fists. They touched another person in a gentle way and felt, at least for a moment, some peace that comes when connecting to another human being in an honest and heartfelt manner.

Ultimately, the hand project reinforced something larger and stronger: a support network. Clients are encouraged to expand their support base and join clubs or go to church, for instance.

Jonathan White, 25, of East Toledo, who likes to sketch comics, has drawn some conclusions during his recovery in art therapy: "Words are like weapons. They can hurt. People say words are just words. Words can really hurt."

A couple hundred clients a year spend time in the art therapy program at Unison, Ruffer said.

Art therapy is catching on as a popular, and effective, way to help a broad range of people.

Several days ago, the Zepf Center marked the opening of its Artists in Recovery and Treatment Gallery in Toledo. The A.R.T. Gallery will display artwork created by clients at the Zepf Center, a nonprofit organization that provides services for Lucas County adults with severe and persistent mental health disorders.

At the newly developed Shared Lives Studio at Lott Industries, clocks, journals, decorations and greeting cards are among works of art being created by individuals as part of a program offered by the Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

In the Genesis studio, Joseph Webber, 55, of Toledo was inspired by his trip to Seattle when he decided to paint a scene of the Rocky Mountains. "It gave me a lot of hope," he said.

His Majestic Mountain painting recently was selected as Unison's first recovery poster by a Genesis client. The posters are on sale for $10 at Unison.

Symbolism is as thick as clay in the studio.

Joe Janiak's three-panel picture shows him breaking through a wall, walking on solid ground and hefting a barbell. "I am standing strong. It shows assertiveness," said Janiak, 41, of South Toledo. "When I say things, I mean what I say."

Karlie Nickeson, 24, of Holland joined the Genesis program after she came home from college and spent five months in and out of the hospital for treatment of her mental illness.

"When I first came here, I was in the deepest, darkest hole that I think I could have been in," she said. Her painting of a garden, with flowers, a gate and a door, was a triumph.

"There's a lot of fear in my life," she said as she described the painting, "and the gate opening partially is me allowing people in. I don't allow a lot of people in but have allowed some. And then as I go farther and farther into the garden of safety, there's a door, and if I really need to hide, I can hide behind the purple door."

She noted that staff members didn't allow her to paint the door until the seventh week into the program. The delay, she assumes, was to teach her patience, adding, "it was very gratifying to paint that last stroke."

It was the first stroke on the canvas that worried Shinaver, 44, of East Toledo, who was apprehensive about painting anything. But the Genesis staff put a brush in her hand and the journey began.

Her painting of an ocean scene particularly personal and emotional shows her remarkable progress and her courage. The painting is so much more than wind-swept sand, blue water and wisps of sea grass.

"I chose this image because my husband had always wanted to take me to see the ocean and we never got to make that trip," she said, fighting back waves of grief. "And this painting reminds me that someday I can still get there on my own."

Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.