Sam Fiorella, a co-founder of the national The Friendship Bench project that assists students with mental health issues, sits on the new bench that was unveiled at VIU’s Cowichan campus on Jan. 15. (Robert Barron/Citizen)

Suicide prompts Yellow Friendship Bench at VIU’s Cowichan campus

Bench program aims to help students with mental issues

Sam Fiorella wants the world to know the story of his son, Lucas.

Speaking to students and faculty at Vancouver Island University’s Duncan campus on Jan. 15, Fiorella said he lost his 19 year-old son three years ago to suicide due to his son’s ongoing struggle with depression.

He said Lucas was popular, athletic and smart, and was accepted early into Carleton University’s computer science program where he helped work on the next generation of the Canadarm for the International Space Station.

“Lucas suffered from depression for six years, but nobody knew about it,” Fiorella said.

“In fact, he was the kid that others went to when they needed a hug. I didn’t know he was suffering. He was always smiling and friendly and showed no unusual signs of depression.”

Fiorella said that after his son’s death, he began hearing many stories about how Lucas would reach out to people who needed help, even strangers, with mental health issues and he would do anything he could for them.

He said he thought it was a shame that Lucas was not around anymore to continue these conversations with people who asked for assistance.

“Students are more comfortable talking about their mental health issues with their peers,” Fiorella said.

“Lucas provided the courage for them to speak about their suffering with family and/or professionals and prevented these students from dropping out of school or taking their own lives through suicide.”

Fiorella said his son’s ‘hello’ to these students was so instrumental in helping many of them, a decision was made to begin The Friendship Bench project which has now been adopted by more than 30 secondary and post-secondary schools across Canada.

The program’s efforts are built around the iconic yellow friendship bench, which is installed at secondary and post-secondary schools.

The bench serves as a permanent, physical, and year-round reminder to students to take a moment out of their day to sit, breathe, and talk (or think) about their mental health and that of their friends.

It’s also intended to inspire peer-to-peer conversations about mental health in order to reduce the stigma, and encourage more students to seek help by providing literature and contact information.

The VIU campus in Nanaimo already has one installed, and the newest one at the Duncan campus was unveiled on Jan. 15.

The $5,000 cost of the bench and the program at the Duncan campus was covered almost entirely by the Kiwanis Club of Duncan.

Dave Clark, a past president of the club, said university officials came to speak to the club about the project and it sounded like something the Kiwanis would be interested in supporting.

“Some of our members have had problems with mental health issues so we were more than happy to help out,” he said.

Warren Weir, the academic administrator at VIU’s Duncan campus, said the introduction of the The Friendship Bench project at the campus reflects the “unique and collaborative efforts” of its students and staff, as well as local community groups.

“I’m grateful to be part of a community that cares so much about its post-secondary students,” Weir said.

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