Shelley Marshall knows the challenges of mental illness firsthand.

But she also knows the power of a warm, compassionate environment.

That's why she created the Mental Wellness Loft—a free, safe space in her Toronto home where anybody can come in and take a break from the world.

"It's not just for people living with mental illnesses. It's for people that want to always have mental wellness," said Marshall, a mental wellness advocate, writer and actor.

"So if you're having a rough day, come on in and paint and sing and move. It's just beautiful. It's healing me."

Shelley Marshall

Shelley Marshall attempted suicide 18 years ago, and suffers from post-traumatic stress and anxiety. She uses her experiences as a way to help others living with mental illness. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)

Twice a week, Marshall opens up her Leslieville loft for drop ins. It's a place where people can relax, talk, sleep, play music — or just be.

People paint at the tables, sing at the piano, and do yoga in the open space. There are couches and a bed, and Marshall has snacks and drinks.

Her husband originally constructed the loft as a place where Marshall could work and perform her one-woman play — she said she often has times when she can't leave the house.

But she soon realized she wanted to share the space.

Wellness Loft

There's open space at the Mental Wellness Loft where people can dance, stretch, and try out some yoga. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)

Suicide attempt

Marshall has been experiencing the darkness of mental illness since childhood.

Her father died by suicide when she was seven. Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder and died at age 40.

Marshall says she has post-traumatic stress and anxiety, and made a suicide attempt 18 years ago.

Now, she constantly shares her experiences as a way to help others.

 Lara Martin

Lara Martin plays piano and sings on the stage of the Wellness Loft. She said she loves how comfortable she feels in the loft's welcoming, inclusive atmosphere. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)

Accessing mental health services has often been challenging, said Marshall, and she finds it hasn't always been beneficial.

She said that the world needs more spaces like the Mental Wellness Loft, where people can be together and connect.

"We need life stories, we need life experiences to heal. And so my hope is absolutely that we can start to create these spaces," she said.

"I just think maybe if someone sees what's happening, they'll be inspired to see that these places are what we need. Not emergency rooms."

Mental Wellness Loft

Marshall doesn't receive any funding for her project. She uses the proceeds from her one-woman play to buy supplies. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)

That sentiment resonates with Lara Martin, who frequents the space.

"There's a whimsical fun aspect to it but also there's just the atmosphere of inclusivity which I so value and appreciate," Martin said. 

"I think creative spaces and mental wellness go hand-in-hand, and a place that provides that is beautiful and needed."

Hopeful more will open

Marshall said the response to the loft has been incredible; she's been inundated with emails and phone calls.

"When I answer the phone we talk for 20 minutes, and by the time the conversation's over, they are going to come," she said.

"People who haven't left their home in three months, they're coming."

Welcome Loft

The Mental Wellness Loft is located on Carlaw Avenue in Toronto. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)

Marshall uses the proceeds from her one-woman play, Hold Mommy's Cigarette, to fund the project. 

She said now people are making donations to the loft, and artists and musicians are coming in to donate their time.

"A lot of us that seek help can't get it," she said.

"My hope is that other people will come, see it, take part and be inspired to open up more."

Mental Wellness loft

During the drop-in hours, anyone can come to the loft to paint, play music, talk, or just have a quiet place to think. (Tina Mackenzie/ CBC Toronto)