By Bobinec, Greg on January 29, 2020.
A new bright yellow bench now sits in the hallways of the Lethbridge College Andrews Building, as a catalyst for conversation around mental health.
The college has joined a growing number of post-secondary institutions that have installed a Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench as a suicide-prevention technique. Named in honour of an Ontario student who died by suicide in 2014, the purpose of the bench is to act as a place to begin a conversation. Anyone who feels they need support but aren’t ready to reach out in a formal setting can sit on the bench, and others in the area can take it as a sign to initiate a conversation with the person.
“The Friendship Bench was inspired by my son, whom we lost five years ago to depression. In the aftermath of his death, we went on a discovery tour, we wanted to learn why he was suffering in silence. We had no clue until we read his note that he had been suffering with depression for quite a number of years,” says Sam Fiorella, father of Lucas. “What we learned in that discovery process was not only was he suffering in silence, he actually was reaching out to many students who were also suffering in silence, and he was able to save them or prevent them from taking their life, stop them from dropping out of school and going back home.
“All of these stories started to accumulate in the weeks after his death and we discovered that students really want to hear that affirmation from other students, they want that ‘hello,’ they want another student to make it OK to not be OK, and in doing so they are more likely to get the help that they need.”
The Friendship Bench organization has 64 benches in educational institutions across the country, with a goal of reaching 80 by the end of the academic year. Campuses that have the program running report an 18 per cent increase in the number of students seeking help for some form of depression. Through this initiative, Lethbridge College is hoping to prevent any future situations, as their students’ mental health is important and the effects can spread far.
“We did have a loss recently of a student at the college and it affects everyone when that happens. It reminds us to pay attention to our students even more closely,” says Allen Ledyit, instructor in Child and Youth Care at the college. “It also hits the students pretty hard, when something like that happens. Of course, it is difficult to talk about and that can push emotions and concerns underground, and the yellow bench helps prevent stuff like that and encourages students to speak to each other.”
The Friendship Bench is installed in the Andrews 1700 wing of the college to serve as a permanent reminder to students to take a moment out of their day to sit, breathe and think or talk about their mental health and that of their friends.
“The mental health and well-being of our college community is one of our over-arching goals,” says Paula Burns, Lethbridge College president and CEO. “We recognize that not everyone who needs help will seek it in the same way, so this is a means of providing another avenue for those in need to connect. I’m really proud of our campus community for taking the initiative to make this project come to fruition.”
The Friendship Bench is a not-for-profit corporation launched in April 2015 to continue the selfless acts of Lucas Fiorella. Lethbridge College offers a wide range of health and wellness supports, including an on-campus help centre, 24/7/365 online and phone access to counsellors through Shepell Counselling Services, as well as Indigenous Cultural Services.
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