Sask. Polytech hopes Friendship Bench Initiative sparks discussion about mental health

Saskatchewan Polytechnic unveiled this yellow bench at the Prince Albert campus on January 29, 2019. The bench is part of an initiative to encoruage discussion about mental illness. Photo courtesy Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

Saskatchewan Polytechnic is hoping a simple bench can inspire more conversations surrounding mental health.

Tuesday, the institution unveiled two more yellow benches, one at the Prince Albert campus, and one in Saskatoon. A third bench was unveiled in Moose Jaw on Monday and the yellow bench at the Regina campus has been in place since last May.

The benches are a part of the Friendship Bench initiative, founded by Sam Fiorella and inspired by the loss of his son, Lucas, who died by suicide. At the time of Lucas’s death, his family was unaware that he was suffering from depression. The Friendship Bench was created to help others open up before it’s too late.

“They developed the Friendship Bench Initiative … as encouragement and a symbol and a reminder to people to say hello to others who they think might need to start conversations around mental health, and for all of us to reach out,” said Saskatchewan Polytechnic associate vice president of student services Tobi Strohan.

“Something as simple as a hello could help to open a conversation with someone who is suffering and really needs support.”

Strohan said the first bench in Regina was extremely well received.

“People were very enthusiastic about the concept and about the bench itself. We always knew that we would want to have benches in all campus cities,” she said.

According to a press release, the initiative has set out to install the benches across the country to encourage peer-to-peer conversations about mental health among students to drive awareness, connect students to on-campus and in-community mental health resources and educate students and parents about the causes an signs of various forms of mental illness so students can be more aware of their own mental health and that of their friends.

For months, Saskatchewan Polytechnic worked to find a donor who would be able to finance the purchase of the other benches.

“This was really because, on all of our campuses, we see the message and the symbol as important,” Strohan said.

“We want to provide wellness support and provide help to our students around mental health whenever, wherever we can, on all campuses.”

A donor was found — the Annie’s Friends Foundation, established by Anne Neufeld, former Saskatchewan Polytechnic provost and vice president academic.

“She actually left … in the summer, and this was a farewell gift,” Strohan explained.

‘When she was our provost, she made clear that mental health was important to her. I think, for her, this was a way to carry on with that commitment. How special to us — what a generous and meaningful gift.”

In a press release, Neufeld talked about the importance of the gift.

 “I’ve always been passionate about health and wellness,” she said.

“Initiatives such as the Friendship Bench encourage students, faculty and staff to find the support they need to be successful in achieving their educational, career and life goals.”

The unveiling of the benches was scheduled for this week to kick off the institution’s participation in Bell Let’s Talk Day. Let’s Talk Day, which is being held today across Canada, is an initiative to raise awareness and combat stigma surrounding mental health in Canada.

In addition to running advertisements tackling myths about mental health, Bell uses the initiative to fundraise and donate to mental health initiative. Every tweet using the hashtag, Facebook post with the official frame or view of the official video, snap with the official filter, call or text sent by a Bell customer, the company will donate five cents to mental health initiatives.

“We’re one of over 200 post-secondary institutions across the country helping to start and continue the conversation around mental health,” Strohan said.

“We started with the yellow benches in these three cities, and tomorrow this will carry on with other activities across our campuses.”

In addition to events held this week, Strohan said Saskatchewan Polytechnic offers a variety of supports for staff and students with mental illness.

That includes counselling on all campuses, programming to help students manage their stress, therapy dogs that are brought in at various points to help students with stress, an employee assistance program for faculty and staff and mental health training.