November 19, 2018 7:30 am
Updated: November 19, 2018 1:35 pm

Obstacles that Shape Us: From losing a friend to helping hundreds

Peace of Mind Canada founder Loizza Aquino and a group of mental health speakers and advocates join together to erase mental health stigma.

Courtesy Peace of Mind Canada
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Obstacles that Shape Us is a series of inspiring stories shared by Canadians who have overcome adversity. Learn how their life experiences impacted who they are and what they do today.

He was the most smiley person she knew. At 15, Loizza Aquino never thought her high school best friend Miguel Labossiere would take his own life.

Aquino and Labossiere went to elementary school and high school at Vincent Massey Collegiate together. They also developed a bond at church, prior to Miguel’s death in 2015.

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She remembers him as sweet, kind and easy to talk to, no matter what. He was just 18.

“Being able to have really good memories with him in the short years that we had was such a blessing and it’s something that I wish we could have had more of, but unfortunately mental health mental illness was something that was not acknowledged,” Aqunio said.

When she looks back on it all now she admits there were a few signs from Miguel that, at the time, she didn’t know what to do about.

“I think that it’s something that people close to him could see, that he was struggling, but I don’t think, well, no one ever thinks that you could lose someone to suicide and I think that’s the whole part of the issue … it’s something that really needs to change.”

Miguel wasn’t the only student who died by suicide at Vincent Massey in 2015. Aquino said there were a few others who also took their lives.

“It was something that affected not only me but the issue of mental health affected everybody in the community,” Aquino said. “Winnipeg is such a small community … so it was impossible not to know somebody who was affected by it.”

It was during the days of grieving that followed the horrible news that Aquino came up with an idea to try to stop suicides from happening around her.

She started a non-profit group called Peace of Mind 204, initially for teens in Winnipeg to talk about their struggles, depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in a public space. In September 2015, the group hosted its first event called Youth Against Mental Illness Stigma (YAMIS).

IN PHOTOS: Students share their stories on stage at the first YAMIS event in Winnipeg

READ MORE: Youth against mental illness stigma group speaking up in Winnipeg

“When you lose someone you care about to something that is preventable, you don’t want to just sit around and just sulk. You want to be able to make sure that you’re able to talk about them and remember them and keep their name alive. Just because they’re not there doesn’t mean you have to forget about them,” Aquino said.

In the last three years, hundreds of students have attended Aquino’s events in Winnipeg, sharing their mental health stories. Not only does this help her heal, but Aquino said the gatherings are also helping others who haven’t been able to find a safe outlet to talk about their struggles.

“They would turn to self harm or drugs or alcohol to cope with their emotions but now they had better places to go and better people to talk to and it’s something that I wouldn’t trade for the world,” she said.

“I know that I have seen people who have come up to me and tell me that this event saved my life, or this event has helped me be clean from self harm.”

READ MORE: ‘Our mental health system is flawed’: Canadian app offers online video counselling for patients in need

It was after she sent out one heartfelt tweet that Aquino realized the need for mental health awareness was felt by people around the world. Her tweet received tens of thousands of reactions.

One month after her friend passed away, Aquino had a dream that made her think of an experience she once had going up a mountain in Maui before sunrise. She woke up and realized that hiking up a mountain could be a metaphor for life because when you start the journey early in the morning, it’s often dark and hard to see what’s ahead but by sticking with it, the view at the end is beautiful. So she tweeted “if you died at 5:10, you wouldn’t be able to see the beauty at 6:00” along with a series of photos she took.

“Knowing that a lot of people just see pitch black sometimes and knowing that they give up is something that I felt like they needed to see, that at the end it will be worth it and it’s so beautiful, and the comments I got back and the feedback from that post was amazing, there was people who were sharing their stories with me.”

“One that stuck out was … I think she was from London or the other side, and she said that ‘I could really relate to this, my dad passed away at 6 a.m. last week and I just wish he held on,'” Aquino recalled.

“It was something that really hit me because I knew that something so small that took me three minutes to write helped her find peace and helped her understand that there are other people in this world as well that are going through it too and she’s not alone in it.”

WATCH: Loizza Aquino explains why she sent out a mental health tweet that went viral 

Aquino believes the power of social media can help end the stigma around mental health.

“I think that as young people we really have to take the first step because there’s this generation gap when it comes to mental health where a bunch of older people might not know how to talk about mental health because it wasn’t talked about back then,” she said.

“I think we all have our part to do as young people to use our voices, use the power of social media … use what we know and what we’re good at to have these conversations.”

READ MORE: How to take care of your mental health over the holiday season

Now a University of Toronto student, Aquino is majoring in mental health and international development studies as well as urban policy and government, hoping to continue making a difference for Canadians. Her goal is to give young people a platform to talk about mental health, believing it’s in people’s hands to create change.

“We’ve never had a society where mental health and mental illness wasn’t stigmatized but in order to get there we have to do something that we’ve never done before and that is to talk about it,” Aquino said.

As a way to bring more people across the country together Aquino has now expanded her Peace of Mind 204 beyond Manitoba. Peace of Mind Canada is hosting her first YAMIS mental health event in Ottawa Nov. 21 at Carleton University. She has hosted similar events in Toronto.

“You need to have these conversations with people you love because they really could be struggling and you have no idea.”

“It could be the person next to you in class, the person next to you at work, the person next to you on the car or on the bus. And the thing about mental health is it’s tricky because you don’t know whose struggling, you can’t see it physically.”

“We really need to be okay with knowing that we can’t do everything alone,” Aquino said.

She wants people to know that hoping and crossing their fingers someone doesn’t take their own life doesn’t qualify as suicide prevention.

WATCH: Canadian mental health advocate explains why it’s so important to break down mental illness stigma 

At the end of each day, all Aquino wants is to make her best friend Miguel proud.

“I want to be able to make sure he is still smiling and make sure that everything’s okay, and I just want to make sure that people who cared about him and people who know him don’t feel like they’re alone in this as well.”

You can follow Peace of Mind Canada on Twitter here, or on Instagram here.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide PreventionDepression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868  all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

 

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