A Vincent Massey Collegiate student leading the charge against mental illness stigma has been recognized for her work in the community with a $70,000 scholarship.
Loizza Aquino, 17, was awarded the 2017 TD Scholarship for Community Leadership earlier this month.
The Whyte Ridge resident is founder of Peace of Mind 204, a youth-led organization promoting conversation about mental health and suicide prevention among students.
Aquino began Peace of Mind 204 in 2015, following the loss of her close friend, Miguel Labossiere, and three other students in the city to suicide within a month’s time. Aquino and Labossiere, who was 18 at the time of his death, had grown up together and attended the same church.
"Suicide is preventable and I think that the stigma surrounding mental health is stopping people from getting the help that they need, and the help that they deserve to become better," Aquino said.
"For a while, I was sitting there looking for answers: why did this person do this? Then I realized I had it wrong and you’re not supposed to be looking for answers; you’re supposed to be creating solutions."
Peace of Mind 204 has been hosting events in schools across the city called Youth Against Mental Illness Stigma (YAMIS). The event is a chance for students to gather, take in presentations and performances from local speakers and artists, and share their own stories about mental health.
Aquino said the conversations have made a difference in the lives of her peers who’ve come forward to express their gratitude and explain that they’ve been free from self-harm, are finding help, and now know they’re not alone.
"I think the most important part is having that conversation, opening those doors and giving people that platform to start that mental health conversation and create awareness," Aquino said. "Until people are fully talking about it and fully open about it, I don’t feel like my job is complete."
Labossiere’s parents are on Peace of Mind 204’s board of directors and have provided "overwhelming" support for the initiative since its inception, Aquino said.
"We all loved Miguel… I think that the fact that we have (his parents) on our side and the fact that we’re doing something in their son’s honour and doing something to make sure he’s never forgotten, has brought us closer together as a community."
According to a release, the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership is given to students who are "driving social change in their communities." The scholarship covers tuition and living expenses up to $70,000 and includes employment and mentorship opportunities.
Aquino said she will be attending the University of Toronto in the fall and plans to study either cyber law or family law and will continue to promote the Peace of Mind 204 platform across the country.
"The great part about the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership and the thing that made me want to apply, is that they really reinforce the fact that education is important, but so is being a leader within your community," Aquino said. "I feel like that was something that I wanted ever since I heard of it, and it was my goal to earn it."