LOIZZA AQUINO - Founder of Peace of Mind


In celebration of the launch of the Joggo Purpose Backpack, we have decided to spotlight three incredible individuals that embody our mission: working towards the greater good. These young changemakers aren’t letting their age stop them from educating people of all generations on some of the most important issues in today’s society. By using their voices to promote social change, Wali Shah, Loizza Aquino, and Diana Smendra represent the power that youth have to make a difference. 

 Loizza Aquino

Loizza is a mental health advocate, President and Founder of the non-profit, Peace of Mind 204, and an international social justice award winner-all before the age of 18. The Winnipeg-native turned a tragic experience in her personal life into an opportunity to educate her community on the realities of mental health. Now, in her first year at the University of Toronto, Loizza is eager to continue spreading her message across Canada and work towards completing her education.

 

Tell me a little bit about how you got to Toronto.

I got a scholarship, called the TD Scholarship for Community Leadership. It’s a $70,000 scholarship that you can use towards any university in Canada. I’ve always wanted to live in a bigger city because I felt like Winnipeg was too small for me to do what I wanted in terms of working with big businesses or big corporations. But it was a good place to start. I was able to be well known in the city and have the resources that I needed; I got to work with the government, the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba, and just test the waters as to how it would be to run my own organization. As a first step, it was a good place. But as I’m getting older and my organization keeps growing, Toronto is the next step.

So you got your start in 2015 after four young people, one of whom was your friend, committed suicide. What was that like?

It was two in May, one in June, and a day after was another girl who was my age. It was the worst thing ever because just as people were starting to begin getting over and talk about what had happened to my friend, we were hit with another [suicide]. It was like, what do we do now? Why is this happening? It just kind of created fear for a couple days, like, is someone else going to be next? It was really unpredictable, and it was during exam time, as well. So it was already stressful and it wasn’t regular school hours where you can go to class and have teachers to talk to, or see all your friends. Everything felt really weird and the timing didn’t help at all. I think the fact that they were all high school students and that Winnipeg is a small community so everyone either knows each other or has heard of each other made it worse.

Did you know the two individuals who had committed suicide before your friend had?

I had heard of them. I had friends who were friends or practically family with them. Everyone was impacted in one way or another. As a community, we did get together but I feel that there was way more that we could have done and there weren’t really any kids stepping up saying, 'Hey, we need to be a voice for each other.’ Kids are most likely to listen to someone who looks like them or is similar in age than someone with grey hair. That’s how I saw it, and how other people around me saw it. So when the four of them ended their lives, it created a conversation. I felt that that conversation shouldn’t just happen once someone has died, but throughout the year so no one has to die before we talk about it. It definitely was a slap in the face to everyone. We felt like we were all so ignorant to the fact that these people were struggling and we didn’t do anything. But you can’t go back in time and fix what you didn’t do, you can only look forward and work to prevent it.

Were there any signs that you saw in your friend who passed away?

It was different. He showed me parts of it, but to know that it was a sign you would have needed all pieces of the puzzle. Everyone had a different piece; I had a piece, his family had a piece, his other friends had a piece. You wouldn’t have known it was a sign unless we were all talking about it. So yes, I had a sign but it wasn’t the whole picture.

What was the first piece of action that you took following the suicides?

We did the Youth Against Mental Illness Stigma (Y.A.M.I.S.) event. We’ve done four and we’re having our fifth one this year. I’m looking at having one in February here in Toronto, but it really depends on my school schedule and how much time I’ll have to work on it. Even in terms of connections, how many high schools and organizations I can reach before February while doing school, and managing the Manitoba event.

So you definitely have plans to take the event across Canada.

Oh yeah, for sure. 

What would you say has been the ripple effect on people your age?

When we created Peace of Mind, it was June 2015 and our first event was September 2015. After that September, schools started adopting their own Peace of Mind chapters, which allowed them to created their own events or their own Y.A.M.I.S.’, or have their own mini-fundraisers and awareness campaigns. Now there’s around 15 schools participating, so it’s going really well. I also get to do presentations to teachers, students, administrations, and superintendents across the province. It’s giving them a fresh, young voice that they don’t get to hear often. I think that’s the biggest ripple effect. Now schools are having full days or even full weeks devoted to talking about [mental health] because of Peace of Mind. You can’t ask for more beyond that. There’s no amount of money that can replace how much time and attention that schools have been putting on mental health. Saving one life saves not only that individual, but an entire community from feeling pain. That’s our goal. We don't have a monetary goal, we just want to start the conversation and awareness.

 That’s incredible. Before you began these initiatives, did you have any formal education on mental health at all or was it all brought on from your own personal experiences?

I grew up in a relatively wealthy community and a lot of my friends and I didn’t actually know too much about struggle because our families were doing okay. In terms of mental health, if we said we were struggling, they were usually there for us. But my friend who died by suicide, for example, he was adopted. As he was growing up, it became something he started to struggle with, like the notion of his birth parents not wanting him or being able to care for him. It became the beginning of things that were happening in his head. So in terms of what I knew about struggle and mental health, he taught me everything. There’s a lot that you can’t teach people about struggle because they have to experience it. But I’m doing my best to show people that there’s more to life than your own. There’s so many little things that you can do to help other people, it’s not always giving up an arm or a leg. Nothing that I knew about mental health was taught in school or workshops, it was just what I knew from personal experience. This is the case for so many other people because schools just don’t talk about it. So it was definitely just life experience that taught me what I know.

Now, you’ve recently won the North America Youth Award for Gawad Geny Lopez Bayaning Filipino Awards. How was the experience of going to the Philippines to receive it?

It was amazing, it was so fun. Definitely life changing. I hadn’t been back there since 2005, so when I went I thought I remembered it clearly but I didn’t. There was so much poverty and it broke my heart. The first night I was there I couldn't even sleep because I felt so powerless that I couldn't do anything. That’s definitely my next project. I would love to be running two things at once, when my schedule allows it. But yeah, it was so life changing. I couldn’t ask for anything else. It’s so cool to be able to say that something I was able to do for my friend is now going global. It was amazing to tell my story and show that no matter how young you are, nothing is out of bounds.

It’s amazing that something so impactful and positive could be born out of such horrendous circumstances.

I think that’s the thing that makes people so interested in it. How do you turn something like that around? It really wasn’t easy for me. I can’t go back in time and fix anything...I was searching for answers but I couldn’t find them. But I can’t be searching for answers, I need to be creating resolutions and prevention so that this doesn’t have to happen to anyone else. Just moving forward is the goal.

What do you think is wrong with the way that people look at mental health?

I think that people see it as something that has the potential to not be believed in, but it’s quite literally science. A lot of people don’t think mental health is important because you can’t physically see it. I think that no one really talks about it as well, but everyone is affected either directly or indirectly. I think a lot of it is a lack of education and awareness. As a society, we need to work on being able to say that we can do something about it. Getting better is something that you have to do for yourself, but the people around you can help you do it. Our focus as an organization, something we hope to accomplish, is getting people to be open to help. By doing that, others who need help can be more comfortable about getting help themselves. It causes a chain reaction and makes people want to get better. Conversation and word of mouth is everything when you're young, so at our events we have people talk about their struggle and how they got better. There’s always going to be one kid in that audience who can identify with that person and think that there’s hope for them.

So what do you want to accomplish on a larger scale?

The thing that sets us apart from other organizations is that we’re 100 per cent youth. We want to keep it that way and be a national, youth mental health group that has the funds and resources to accomplish what we want. I think our larger scale goal is to spread out across Canada and have these events. When we actually have more resources and more support, there’s so much more we can do. I want to show people that youth can make a change, and I want to show youth that they can be that change.

Who inspires you to keep doing what you’re doing?

The people that I work with, the nine other individuals who work for Peace of Mind are the most inspiring people that I’ve ever met. They have been there for me when everything was going on and we were there for each other when all the suicides had happened. We were all just people within the community who came together and became a really big family. They inspire me to be a better person because they care so much about what we’re doing together and mental health in general. I know that with these nine people standing by me, we can accomplish anything together. The team aspect is so important to me. No matter how good your life is, if you don’t have people to share it with, it means nothing. They inspire me to keep going and be better.

 

Becoming comfortable with talking about mental health is important for everyone. For more information on Loizza and Peace of Mind 204, please visit www.peaceofmind204.com.


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