January 17, 2018 - 2:00pm
The Friendship Bench aims to stimulate conversations and encourage student-to-student connections
An educational experience at Vancouver Island University (VIU) changed Adaline Russell’s outlook on life.
In 2008, Russell was severely depressed when she joined a handful of other students at the first Clemente Course offered at VIU – a rigorous, university-level course that offers a doorway into secondary education to people who struggle with challenges such as mental health issues, poverty and disabilities. She was referred to the program by her mental health case manager.
“I came out one day and my mental health support worker said to me, ‘You have a smile on your face,’” she remembers. “I guess I hadn’t been smiling much, I had kind of lost interest in most everything in my life. And I said, ‘You’re right, I think I’m enjoying the course, I’m learning things that I’m finding interesting.’”
Russell went on to graduate in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies degree from VIU and she’s continued taking courses at the Cowichan Campus out of personal interest. A couple years ago, she learned about the Friendship Bench project from a friend and began pushing to have one installed at the campus.
The Friendship Bench is a permanent visual reminder of the importance of mental health. It encourages students who see or use it and to take a moment out of the day to participate in open and honest peer-to-peer conversations about mental health. Further, through the URL and hashtag featured on the back rest, it connects students to available on-campus mental health support teams. The initiative was co-founded by Sam Fiorella, whose son Lucas took his own life in October 2014 after suffering from depression in secret for a number of years.
Russell, who lost a brother to suicide, believes the bench serves as a reminder of the importance of bringing mental health challenges into the open so no one has to suffer alone.
“Stigma divides us and with the yellow bench, we create a venue that seeks to unite us all so people with mental health challenges can fully participate as members of the community,” she says. “It shouldn’t be a hidden thing. The bench provides a safe place to talk without judgement.”
The Cowichan Campus began fundraising to buy a Friendship Bench in 2016, and Russell’s presentation to the Kiwanis Club of Duncan raised the final $5,000 needed to install the bench.
“Addy gave a very warm and fuzzy presentation that hit home with our members, some of whom had gone through considerable mental health issues with children and grandchildren,” says Dave Clark, the Club’s Past President. “This is an issue dear to Kiwanis and many of our members, so it was a done deal.”
The benches are being installed at post-secondary institutions, as well as secondary and elementary schools across Canada. VIU’s Nanaimo Campus became home to the first Friendship Bench on the Island in October 2016, funded by CUPE Local 1858. Sam Fiorella says it is his organization’s ultimate goal to establish one on every campus across Canada.
“The more students, parents and faculty we can reach with our message that it’s okay to ask for help, the better,” he says.
Warren Weir, Cowichan Campus Academic Administrator, says the project is a collaborative effort between students, staff and faculty at the campus as well as the Kiwanis Club of Duncan through their generous donation.
“We are grateful to be part of such a supportive community that cares so deeply about not only creating access to post-secondary for all, but ensuring students feel supported once they get here,” he says.
The Friendship Bench, which is installed just outside the cafeteria, was unveiled at a special event on Monday, January 15, 2018.
Jenn McGarrigle, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University