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Seneca says "hello" to student mental health

Clockwise from top: Sam Fiorella, Marketing professor; Laurel Schollen, Vice-President Academic; Mental Health Intervention students Bilise Lome and Camille Nelson, and David Johnston, Acting Director, Counselling and Accessibility Services, celebrate the Friendship Bench installation at Newnham Campus.

A splash of yellow making a wave through Seneca this week marked the first-ever multi-campus installation of the Friendship Bench mental health initiative in Canada.

The bright yellow bench was unveiled at Newnham Campus on Wednesday, Nov. 30, followed by installations at Markham, Seneca@York and King campuses. The bench and its #YellowIsForHello campaign will serve as a constant, permanent and visual reminder for people to talk openly about mental health issues.

The Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench was co-founded by Marketing professor Sam Fiorella after his son took his own life at the age of 19.

Lucas was a student studying robotics at Carleton University. Sam recalls Lucas had lots of friends, an infectious giggle worth tickling for, a smile that melted hearts, a beautiful girlfriend, and that he loved snowboarding and was the kid everybody went to.

“That’s what depression looks like,” Sam says. “He suffered for seven years and nobody knew.”

Sam learned after Lucas’s death that he often spotted those in need of help and reached out to them with a simple “hello” to start a conversation.

“I’m not a clinician or a psychologist. What I want to do is to make you understand that depression is not what you think and it is more prevalent than you think,” Sam says. “The bench is a reminder to all of you to say ‘hello’ and to take time out of your day to talk to people. One ‘hello’ is all it takes to save a life — and that life can even be your own.”

According to Statistics Canada, more than 50 per cent of students who suffer from depression never report it to friends, family or professionals, despite the fact that more and more secondary and postsecondary schools are adding full-time mental health counsellors on staff.

At Seneca, the Counselling and Accessibility Services team offers support for students trying to manage the complexities of college life. Through the Seneca Student Federation, the Mental Health Awareness Association has been established at King Campus for two years, with another one to start at Newnham Campus. In addition, Seneca is the first college in Ontario to offer an Honours Bachelor of Community Mental Health degree alongside a new Mental Health Intervention graduate certificate program.

“There’s still more to do,” says David Johnston, Acting Director, Counselling and Accessibility Services.

When David lost one of his friends to suicide between high school and university, “I couldn’t understand it at the time, but it helped shape the work I’ve chosen to do,” he says. “We’re all touched by someone in our lives and the Friendship Bench will let people know that the time for suffering in silence is over.”

Friendship benches have been installed at high school, college and university campuses across the country. In secondary and postsecondary institutions where the benches are installed, there has been a reported 18 per cent increase in students seeking on-campus mental health assistance.

With suicide now the second-leading cause of death among Canadians aged 15 to 34, Laurel Schollen, Vice-President Academic, says developing a culture of openness around student mental health has never been more important.

“We know the numbers and we are aware of the problems,” she says. “Sam has turned grief into a movement across Canada — this is a call to action.”