By his own admission, Sam Fiorella used to be “incredibly ignorant” about mental illness.
“I knew what schizophrenia was, I knew what anorexia was,” he told The Southern Gazette on Thursday, May 9 at the Calvary Pentecostal Church in Marystown. There, a bright yellow Friendship Bench had just been presented to the local campus of Keyin College.
Fiorella didn’t realize anxiety and depression were forms of mental illness, and he certainly didn’t think it was something that could affect someone in his own family.
Then he lost his 19-year-old son, Lucas, to suicide in 2014.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Fiorella co-founded the Friendship Bench, an organization to raise awareness about mental health.
He’s often asked, why a bench?
“You sit on a bench to talk to people. That’s what you do on it. So the bench really represents peer-to-peer conversation and that’s what the whole program is about, inspiring peer-to-peer conversation,” Fiorella explains.
It’s symbolic, he says, and a call to action to take some time to stop and forget life’s stresses.
“Because the more we make it okay for people not to be okay and accept that we all have failings when it comes to our mental health in some capacity, the more likely it is that those people will feel comfortable enough to get help from a professional.”
The goal of the Friendship Bench initiative is to place a yellow bench in every post-secondary school in Canada. There are now over 50 scattered across the country.
The bench at Keyin College in Marystown is the first to be located at a post-secondary college in Newfoundland and Labrador. It all began when Loretta Lewis, principal at the campus, began corresponding with Fiorella after seeing a social media post about two years ago.
The back-and-forth exchanges continued until Lewis recently received a call informing her the campus would be recipient of the bench, courtesy of the organization.
Lewis, who noted the campus has lost students to suicide, said the bench is an acknowledgement of the important work the school has done to connect with students, show care and push for change.
“That bench will be a safe place … it’s going to be a grounded space,” she told The Southern Gazette.
Fiorella said his son was aware people were suffering in silence like himself.
“He was doing this work well before I knew anything about it,” he said.
“So, the entire program was not anticipated, but it was inspired by the work he was already doing. In his 19 years, he’s done more than I’ve done in my 52, so I’m just trying to honour his life by keeping his work going.”