Extended interview with mental health advocate and nonprofit founder Loizza Aquino
I wrote about Loizza Aquino for the Toronto Star last month, ahead of an event she created to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide. She had a lot more to say than the quotes that made it into the article.
Here's more from my chat with Loizza about dealing with a friend's suicide, the lack of mental health resources for youth in Canada, and how to empower others to speak up about it.
Q: A bit about your background
I’m from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was born in the Philippines. I moved to Winnipeg when I was about a year old. I started realizing as I got older there were way more opportunities in Winnipeg...I kept that in mind and it made me realize that I had many different advantages than people who had maybe grown up in poverty where my mom grew up. My opportunities are different than my mom’s so it made me somebody who wanted to make a difference around something unequal or unfair.
Q: What made you want to start your nonprofit, Peace of Mind?
Once I hit grade 10, 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. We lived a few minutes away from each other. We went to elementary, middle and high school together. We went to the same church. He became one of my best friends and basically my brother so to have that happen at this young age, to me, was very devastating.
It shook the whole school community in all of Winnipeg because not even a month before he had passed away, there were two students from a school around 30 minutes away from mine that had died by suicide as well. A few days after my friend passed away, a girl from a school about 15 minutes away from my school had died by suicide as well.
It was four (suicides) basically one after another. I guess the feeling that the city had and the environment that I was in, it wasn’t healthy for me. It wasn’t healthy for anybody going through it. Winnipeg is such a small community, let’s say, compared to Toronto, and everybody knew each other. One way or another you knew somebody who died by suicide or somebody that was affected by it.
It put my life into perspective because I saw that life is too short. I was sitting around waiting for answers, but I realized that even if I did find answers as to why this was happening, it wouldn’t stop another one from happening so I realized that I need to be creating resolutions as opposed to looking for these answers... That's why I created my own nonprofit at the age of 15 because I realized that one thing that was lacking in terms of mental health was conversation, awareness and education.
What's the most important message to share with other teens and students?
When you tackle those three things and you create an environment where talking about your feelings is ok and getting help is ok—and it doesn’t make you weak reaching out about mental health.
It allows the community to see that we’re not alone in this battle against mental health and the stigma. It’s so prevalent yet it should not be because it affects so many people. I think that in terms of youth mental health, I believe it’s the most important thing because we have a lot of stresses growing up.
Now we have the whole aspect of social media but we also have school relationships, family problems, the list goes on and on. As teenagers, I think a lot of adults look at us and say you have nothing to worry about. I think that’s totally wrong.
I think that’s something that is a misconception about mental health—it's that it’s just a phase teenagers go through. It’s not. It’s just like every other illness and it needs to be addressed. Even though we have days like Bell Let’s Talk day, that’s once a year, and there’s 364 other days in the year where mental health isn’t being talked about. Bell Let’s Talk is an amazing initiative to have people start the conversation but it has to be continued.
Why do you rely on youth to run your events?
The best way to do it for youth mental health is to have youth do it themselves. Oftentimes, they’re unheard and overshadowed by people with power—government people or people who are running organizations for mental health.
But I think the unique thing about what I do is that we have youth standing up for youth. The thing I love about what I do is that people are so open to someone that looks exactly like them...as opposed to someone who is 50 or 60 and running a nonprofit organization about youth mental health specifically—simply because we have so many different challenges than someone born in the 1980s or 1970s or 1960s.
How do we get rid of the mental health stigma?
I think conversation is the best way to go about this. The more that you talk the more normalized it becomes and the more normalized it becomes the easier it is to ask for help.
I realize that mental health itself is a very touchy subject, but I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be touched at all.
Do you think there's a bigger need to offer help to university students?
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. There’s international students away from their families.
What can people expect when they come to a Peace of Mind event?
Something they can expect would be being inspired. When you hear people openly and willingly talk about their stories, they’re in this comfortable environment that allows you to see you’re really not alone. I hope that people who come to my event will know this is only the beginning for what we plan on having done because in terms of conversation, it needs to happen in a university setting.
To have all these people come together with the common goal of eradicating the stigma of mental health, it feels really good to see you’re not alone...A lot of the time, people feel like they’re alone because no one talks about it. No one is really coming forward with their experiences and their journeys. But the speakers that we have lined up are amazing and have amazing stories about how they overcame their own childhood with mental health and how it felt to lose someone to suicide. It’s something that isn’t talked about as much as it should be. It is an uncomfortable topic at first to talk about but the more that we normalize it the better it is. And that’s what they can expect at the event. It’s the normalization of mental health, and the word suicide and the word struggling. Needing help is something that’s very common. It’s a common theme.
We had people after the events say, "Wow you saved my life" or, "You helped me stop self-harming and I was clean for this amount of months" or, "You helped my friend get help" or, "You inspired me to get help." That’s really all you can ask for and that’s really the point of the event: to know that it’s ok not to be ok and to see there are people like you in this world.
What are some reactions you've had from other students?
Something that I got from my campus, because I go to the Scarborough campus, is, because it’s a smaller scale campus, people know who you are very, very quickly. Once people realized I was a mental health advocate, they would pull me aside and message me and say, "Hey I really like what you’re doing. A lot of people don’t know this about me but…" then they would proceed to tell me their story.
I’ve had a lot of guys actually come and tell me how they feel. That’s something that didn’t really happen in Winnipeg, and I see it in Toronto. There’s a lot of young men who are struggling with their mental health and people who struggle with suicidal tendencies. They were able to reach out to me. In return, I’m able to say, "Hey, I'm hosting this event. I hope you can come." Even if they choose not to speak at the open mic session, they’re able to see that there are other people that are going through the same thing as well.
There’s also people who are wanting to volunteer and people who are wanting to speak. The numbers have been overwhelming especially because I’ve only been here for a few months. To see that something as simple as giving people an opportunity to come together to share their stories and listen to stories has made a difference in some people already... The conversation and the awareness is so low right now it can only go up from here.
For people who have been struggling, they’ve shown me where they’ve grown up or the high school they went to or even on the university campus right now, the issue of mental health is not being addressed. For them to come and tell me that they would like to see me do something about it, not only does it feel good, it also inspires me and pushes me to want to do more and do better. Just do as much as I can.