Students and staff at VIU’s Cowichan campus gather at the new yellow bench that was recently installed. The Yellow Bench Project encourages those with mental health issues to reach out for help. (Robert Barron/Citizen)

Students and staff at VIU’s Cowichan campus gather at the new yellow bench that was recently installed. The Yellow Bench Project encourages those with mental health issues to reach out for help. (Robert Barron/Citizen)

Column: Time to deal with mental health in the Valley

The top three Island communities for anxiety and depression are in the Cowichan Valley

Suicide and mental health are not issues that many like to talk about, but it’s a fact that they are a major concern for a lot of people.

A conversation that I had with Sam Fiorella last week at the Cowichan campus of Vancouver Island University drove that point home to me.

Fiorella’s 19-year-old son Lucas died by suicide three years ago after facing years of depression.

The suicide came as a surprise, Fiorella told me, as Lucas was popular, athletic and was so smart he was accepted early into Carleton University’s computer science program.

Nobody knew at the time that he was experiencing severe depression.

In order to deal with his grief and to bring the issue of suicide and mental health to the forefront and help others, Fiorella was instrumental in developing 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, including VIU’s campuses in Nanaimo and Cowichan, that participate in the program.

The benches serve as permanent, physical, and year-round reminders 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 important that such initiatives have been embraced by many in the Valley, where statistics indicate our communities are more prone to depression and anxiety than others on Vancouver Island.

In fact, according to statistics released last year from the Ministry of Health, the top three Island communities for the prevalence of anxiety and depression are Lake Cowichan, at 26.8 per cent, Ladysmith/Chemainus at 26.6 per cent, and the Cowichan Valley at 26 per cent.

The average on Vancouver Island overall is 23.9 per cent, and 21.3 per cent for B.C.

James Tousignant, executive director of the Cowichan branch of the Mental Health Association, told me at the time that there’s no simple answers to explain why local residents are more prone to anxiety and depression.

But he suggested that the high numbers of seniors who come to the Valley to retire, as well as young people struggling with employment issues, may be significant factors.

Many seniors are on fixed income that can lead to financial problems, and many lose their spouses to age, leaving them isolated and alone and easy victims for anxiety and depression.

As for the area’s young people, Tousignant said many are feeling a sense of hopelessness and frustration because the resource industries are not operating at the same levels they did in the past

Tousignant also pointed to the rash of suicides in 2012 among members of the Cowichan Tribes, which many attributed to a sense of hopelessness in that community connected to high unemployment rates.

It’s sad that so many people are quietly suffering all around us, but many are afraid to open up and ask for help because they fear they will be stigmatized.

Their fears are legitimate.

People dealing with anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness are, unfortunately, looked down upon by many.

Unlike those suffering physical ailments, there appears to be an opinion out there that people suffering from mental problems brought it upon themselves, and they are often shunned for it.

They are viewed by many as weak and incapable of dealing with life’s many challenges.

But the case of Lucas Fiorella, a popular and smart student who everyone assumed was at the beginning of a long and happy life, proves otherwise.

Depression and anxiety are a part of a great many people’s lives and the majority of those who successfully dealt with these problems usually sought help from others.

So I hope that the new yellow bench at VIU is used for the purpose it was put there for.

It’s time to grab the bull by the horns and stop stigmatizing the issue.

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