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Loizza Aquino wants to talk about mental health — and she’s inviting her peers to join her.
The 18-year-old Philippines native started a nonprofit organization called Peace of Mind three years ago in Winnipeg, where she grew up, as a safe space for youth to share experiences and “normalize” the conversation surrounding mental health and suicide. She’s now bringing it to Toronto.
“I lost my best friend to suicide. It changed my whole perspective on life in general. I was so young and so was he, and I’d known him ever since I was in elementary school,” she said. “That’s why I created my own nonprofit at the age of 15 because I realized that the things lacking, in terms of mental health, were conversation, awareness and education.”
Aquino is now a University of Toronto student and mental health advocate. After hosting four Peace of Mind events in her hometown, she is planning to do the same in Toronto on Thursday. The event will take place at U of T’s St. George campus from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and feature various speakers as well as an open mic segment, where anyone can talk about their experiences. The purpose, she said, is to open up dialogue, empower youth to share experiences and help them feel like they’re “really not alone.”
So far, 100 students have shared their stories at past events in Winnipeg and about a thousand have listened in the audience.
“I think conversation is the best way to go about this,” she said. “The more that you talk, the more normalized it becomes. The more normalized it becomes, the easier it is to ask for help.”
When students on the university’s close-knit Scarborough campus found out Aquino was a mental health advocate, she said they started coming up to her and sharing their stories. She wanted to provide another in-person resource for youth on campus so she started organizing a Toronto event and partnered with U of T’s department of political science to hold the meetups.
“If anything, the mental health and suicide issue is a lot more relevant (now that I’m in university) because there are a lot of people away from their families, including myself,” she said. “If you don’t know how to get out of bed in the morning because you’re unable to due to a mental illness or you’re just too stressed out, then there’s really no point in saying ‘I graduated.’”
Without the skills to cope with stresses or mental health problems, Aquino said, having a degree “doesn’t really matter.”
Across the country, 24 per cent of deaths for people aged 15 to 24 years old are due to suicide, according to the Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention. It’s the second leading cause of death for Canadians between 10 and 24 years old. Those with mental illness as well as Indigenous youths are at higher risks of suicide, with rates increasing “for vulnerable teens when they go back to school,” the association says. This is coupled with the fact that only one in five children in Canada who need mental health services actually receives them, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, largely due to lack of accessibility. And the number of suicides in Canada is growing, from 3,890 deaths in 2009, according to Statistics Canada data, to 4,405 in 2015.
“The problem with the issue of suicide is that we can’t nail it down to one factor,” said executive director for Toronto Distress Centres Alison Caird. “I think what needs to happen is the staff within schools need to be trained on age-appropriate risk assessment. Also, raising awareness with students.”
Every discussion is basically a chance to save a life, Caird said, because if someone is speaking openly about their issues then there is time for them to get help. Youth who don’t feel equipped to help can try to “convince that person, (and say) ‘Let’s go talk to someone’ and be the advocate and ally for that person,” she said.
Distress Centres offers a 24-7 helpline for anyone in emotional distress and they’re teaming up with other call centres around Canada to provide “1-800 access” to communities — but Caird said there is always a need for resources for youth who need immediate, in-person care.
“Right now, we answer approximately 82,000 calls a year; however, we’re not answering every call so there’s definitely a need for expansion or improved services,” she said. “Why isn’t it out in the public discourse more? Youth are one of our most vulnerable populations.”
Aquino said her group is hoping to bridge that gap, allowing youth to connect with peers on a regular basis. But more importantly, she wants to keep the conversation going. She said the mental health awareness raised by Bell Let’s Talk Day — an initiative aimed at destigmatizing mental illness — is “amazing,” but it’s only once a year.
“(Mental health) is an uncomfortable topic at first,” said Aquino, “but the more that we normalize it, the better it is. It needs to be shown that getting help is the strongest thing you can do for yourself.”
If you are in crisis or need emotional support, you can contact the 24-hour line at Distress Centres at 416-408-4357. You can also text the number or chat online at www.torontodistresscentre.com.
To contact Kids Help Phone, dial 1-800-668-6868.
For youth meetups with Peace of Mind, go to the website: www.peaceofmindcanada.org.