Niagara College marked the start of Mental Health Awareness Week Oct. 5 by unveiling a Friendship Bench at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus.
Niagara is the first college in Ontario to participate in the initiative, which strives to connect students who are in need of help with existing mental health resources, both on campus and off. The bench will be installed at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Campus.
“Mental health advocacy continues to be a key priority for us, and we’re extremely proud to bring a Friendship Bench to our campus,” said Shane Malcom, president of the Niagara College Student Administrative Council (NCSAC), which led the efforts to bring a Friendship Bench to Niagara College. “The Friendship Bench is a vibrant, visual reminder that we need courage, balance, positivity and kindness in our lives. We hope that through this initiative, we can increase mental health awareness in our college community, and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.”
The Friendship Bench initiative was co-founded by Sam Fiorella in memory of his son Lucas, a second-year student at Carleton University who died by suicide in the fall of 2014 after living in silence with depression.
The yellow bench was chosen as the organization’s icon because it represents students taking a moment out of their hectic lives to stop and engage each other. It is meant to serve as a constant visual reminder of the importance of mental health awareness and conversations among students in Canadian schools, where mental health concerns are on the rise. Further, each bench features a URL where students can quickly access on-campus and local mental health and suicide prevention services.
The organization also coordinates local and national awareness campaigns, creates and curates mental health tips and coping strategies for students, and facilitates students accessing the growing list of on-campus mental health services so that few students will suffer in silence and fewer students will be left to consider suicide as their only option.
“Losing Lucas opened our eyes to the epidemic of mental health issues among students and the need to raise awareness of both the issue and of the many resources that are in place to help them cope with stress, anxiety, depression and the challenges of school,” said Fiorella. “The Friendship Bench aims to do just that by encouraging personal connections and conversations about mental health, as well as connecting students to the many support services offered on campus.”
Rick and Sharon Santing understand the Fiorella family’s pain all too well. The couple spearheaded the fundraising effort for Niagara College’s Friendship Bench as a tribute to their son Tyler, a Niagara College student who also died by suicide.
“We decided to support The Friendship Bench program because it encourages students to help each other and it’s a way to bring something positive to the Niagara College community after such a tragedy,” said Rick Santing. “Tyler was a very positive, outgoing and social person with many friends, but he did not reach out for the proper help. It’s so important that students, parents, faculty and staff be more aware of mental health issues and the importance of reaching out, whether by asking for help or offering it. By doing that, we can help prevent future tragedies.”
“Niagara College is pleased to be among the first schools in Canada to participate in this outstanding initiative,” added Pam Skinner, Niagara College’s vice president, Corporate Services, who spoke on behalf of president Dan Patterson at the unveiling. “While we offer effective mental health supports for our students, the Friendship Bench will serve as an important reminder of the need for all of us to listen, to be aware, and to understand the importance of connecting those who need help with the services and resources that are available.”
Mental Health Awareness week activities at Niagara College will also include the Yellow Umbrella Project. Run by the Niagara College’s Student Administrative Council (NCSAC) and the College Student Alliance, the campaign will include a series of events and activities at the Welland and Niagara-on-the-Lake campuses, to raise awareness about mental health issues. Visit www.ncsac.ca/YellowUmbrellaProject.