Sam Fiorella

Bench helps with tough conversations

NANAIMO – Foundation aims to get students talking about issues with mental health.

Lucas Fiorella was walking down the hallway of high school when he stopped and said hello to female student.

It was a simple act that led to an entire conservation about the girl’s battle with depression and her thoughts of suicide.

Fortunately, the girl didn’t take her own life, but got the help she needed thanks in large part to Lucas.

It was a story told by the girl at Lucas’ funeral. In October of 2014, Lucas was attending Carlton University in Ottawa when he took his own life. His family would later discover that he spent years battling depression.

“He didn’t talk to his friends about it and he certainly didn’t talk to his parents about it,” said Lucas’ father, Sam Fiorella.

Inspired by stories of his son’s support for others, Fiorella is now the co-founder of the Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench, a non-profit organization that installs bright yellow benches at secondary and post-secondary institutions across the country in an effort to promote mental health awareness.

On Thursday, Fiorella was at Vancouver Island University, where he, along with university faculty and members of CUPE Local 1858, officially unveiled a friendship bench during a ceremony in the school’s cafeteria.

Speaking to a large crowd, Fiorella said he heard stories about his son being there for others just by simply saying ‘hello’ and that the friendship bench is intended to be a conversation piece for mental health.

“The message that we want to leave to all the students is that every time you see this bench is to remember to take a minute out of your day and talk,” Fiorella said.

“Think about your own mental health and begin to look and care and listen to what your friends are saying because if they don’t have the courage or ability to speak maybe you will have the ability to speak on their behalf,” Fiorella said.

Inscribed on each bench is a link to the organization’s website, which provides links and resources to various mental health agencies, along with the hashtag #YellowIsForHello, which is a campaign run by organization to promote mental health awareness.

“Our goal with this program is that every student on this campus knows that it is OK to talk about stress, to recognize that stress is completely normal,” Fiorella said.

The first friendship bench was installed in 2015 at Carlton University, six months after Lucas’ death, followed by a second one at Lucas’ former high school in Oakville, Ont. Today, there are dozens of benches at schools nationwide, including Simon Fraser University and Centennial College in Toronto.

Fiorella said since the first two benches were installed, schools across the country have been reaching out to his organization. He’s been amazed at all the support.

“We honestly thought we were going to have one or two benches and I didn’t know what kind of support we were going to have,” he said. “The support from the students has been completely overwhelming. Most benches that we are installing on campuses are because the students are demanding them and that is the most surprising to me.”

Vancouver Island University is the first location on the Island to install a friendship bench.

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