Monthly Archives: May 2018

Story Untold: “Conversation Can Save a Life”

Loizza Aquino Story Untold

At just 18 years of age, Loizza Aquino has already found her life’s mission. An 11-time award winning mental health advocate, Aquino — a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba — is the founder of Peace of Mind, a nonprofit comprised of young people working to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health.

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For Aquino, the cause is one that hits close to home; at the age of 15, she lost her best friend to suicide.

“It’s always the people that you never expect,” says the TD Scholar and University of Toronto student. “He was two years older than me, and as I was growing up, he was a lot like a brother to me.”

“To lose someone at that age is just something that you’ll never forget,” she adds. “You sit there and you look for answers.”

“You can never be too sure of who’s struggling and who’s not, and you can never judge a book by its cover.” – Loizza Aquino

It was around the same time that Aquino started Peace of Mind 204 as a way of bringing youth together to share with one another. At the age of 16, she organized and hosted her first event: Youth Against Mental Illness Stigma. Aquino rallied together teens from across Winnipeg to share their stories at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People.

“The most important part about youth mental health is having youth talk about it themselves,” she says. “It’s so much more effective to have youth speak to youth than to have adults speak to youth. You’re more likely to listen to someone who looks like you, thinks like you, and experiences the same things at the same time as you.”

“We had students who talked about suicide attempts, students who talked about sexual assault, students who talked about self-harm, students who talked about what it’s like to be depressed and have anxiety, students who talked about how it feels to not be able to open up to your families or to anybody,” she adds.

“When people ask for help, they’re not weak for it. If anything, they’re stronger, because they’re able to say ‘I cannot do this alone,’ and we all know that’s not an easy thing to admit.” – Loizza Aquino

Emboldened by the response she got within the community, Aquino continued sharing her story and hosting more events throughout the city.

“When people ask for help, they’re not weak for it,” she says. “If anything, they’re stronger, because they’re able to say ‘I cannot do this alone,’ and we all know that’s not an easy thing to admit.”

These days, as Aquino begins university career in Toronto, Peace of Mind has followed along with her, growing from one province to another. Her story has landed her in the pages of the Toronto Star, as well as on TVO’s The Agenda and CBC’s Metro Morning. This year, she has pledged to give away $2,000 in scholarships to four different youth who have become mental health advocates in their own right.

Throughout the process, Aquino has realized the power of conversation.

“Conversation can go a long way, and conversation can do so much for some people,” says Aquino. “We really need to start working together as a community and as a society to ensure that people are feeling safe about talking about mental health and mental illness, because at the end of the day, conversation can save a life.”


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Story Untold: “When We Talk About Trauma, We Always Want to Look for the Smoking Gun”

Stephane Grenier on Story Untold

Photo from speakers.ca

Few careers can be as fraught with potential for post-traumatic stress as the armed forces. Stéphane Grenier knows better than most. A retired Lieutenant Colonel, Grenier spent 29 years in the Canadian military, during which time he spent nine months in Rwanda alongside Roméo Dallaire during one of the worst genocides in modern history.

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“General Dallaire was trying to muster the international community to care about what was happening in [Rwanda],” he says. “At the same time, you had Bosnia, where the attention of the world was [focused]. My initial task was to bring some media, because expatriates had left the country. It was pretty dire out there.”

Grenier arrived in Rwanda in 1994 to a downpour on the tarmac, just two days after he had been briefed about his assignment. The rain was the least of the troubles.

“That got overshadowed pretty quickly by gunfire. The Hercules aircraft that had brought us in didn’t stop very long,” he says. “It took off, and when it landed back in Nairobi, there were some holes in the aircraft. So reality hit fast — fast and hard.”

“You have this sort of notion of a ceasefire and peacekeeping, and then of course reality hits, and it’s not at all what we dream about, right?” – Stéphane Grenier

Grenier’s book, After the War, documents his time spent in the country, describing the countless situations he witnessed.

“This woman had walked I don’t know how many kilometres with a hammer stuck in her head,” he says. “The hammer was literally stuck in her head, and scar tissue had grown around it, because she had been attacked during the genocide and survived.”

He returned to Canada in 1995, but as the months progressed, he realized that he had been dealing with lingering effects from his time in Rwanda — symptoms he described not as post-traumatic stress, but as what he coined ‘moral injuries.’

“I remember feeling mixed up like a bag of nails, having difficulty concentrating, having a very short temper, being impatient, because I thought everything here was so futile,” says Grenier.

“There were many, many false starts in my attempts to get help and seek help […] I was an equal part of the partnership of why it wasn’t working.” – Stéphane Grenier

During one incident, Grenier lost his temper when his daughter was playing outside and he was cleaning the remaining Rwandan soil off his army boots on the driveway. The water from the boots was running down the driveway towards his daughter, connecting two worlds he never wished to see brought together.

Another time, Grenier found himself veering towards a hydro pole while driving — an incident that led him to seek help the following day.

“I didn’t even know how to articulate what was going on with me,” he says. “I grew up in an era where mental health wasn’t on any human being’s radar, unless you were a psychiatrist or psychologist.”

As Grenier began his own journey through the mental health system, he took a greater interest on how the Canadian Armed Forces was taking care of its returning soldiers. In 2001, he developed and implemented a government-based national peer-support program for the Canadian military. In 2007, he was tasked with creating a Canadian Forces-wide workplace mental health education program.

“[People need to understand] that they’re not the only ones to ever experience this. It’s a very isolating journey to recover from, and while physical injuries will probably recover with or without hope,” says Grenier, “the mind doesn’t recover as easily if there’s no hope.”

Now retired from the military, Grenier continues his work by speaking about his story and running a private mental health consulting company. In 2009, he was awarded a national Champion of Mental Health Award by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. He continues to provide advice on peer support to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

“I think a lot of people go about their lives with carrying some baggage of some sort,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they can’t live a happy life, a productive life, an honest life.”


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For The Birds

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Two and a half weeks. That’s how long I lasted in Australia before something tried to kill me.

That it happened at all was not, perhaps, a surprise; a quick Google search is all it takes to end up deep in a rabbit hole of articles detailing the continent’s deadliest predators—the U.S. Department of Defense’s Living Hazards Database, a compilation of more than 500 species worldwide reported to cause “serious injury or death of humans,” lists 66 in Australia alone, third-most of any country. I had read about most of them before embarking on this adventure: a six-week trip with an old friend travelling from Melbourne to Cairns, climbing the country’s east coast. It was to be the trip of a lifetime.

The surprise, rather, came in the delivery method—one that left me questioning whether anywhere was truly safe on this massive island continent. It wasn’t the spiders or snakes, their fangs laden with lethal poison. It wasn’t the sharks or crocodiles, their jaws capable of crunching bones and tearing through flesh. It wasn’t even the jellyfish, their toxin-tipped tentacles stretching up to six feet.

It was the birds. Plain, ordinary birds.

Australia is home to a dizzying array of feathered fliers, from the laughing kookaburras to the colossal cassowaries. In any given moment, you’re just as likely to see a lone brush-turkey running past as you are a company of cockatoos perched overhead. It’s part of the allure of visiting the country: behold, the land of wilderness. They just don’t mention in the visitor guides that some of those colourful characters come with a mean streak.

The warning signs were there all along. Arriving in Port Macquarie, a laid-back, sun-drenched town of some 45,000 where the Hastings River meets the Tasman Sea, my friend and I spied the bicycle helmets with long spikes jutting out of their plastic protective shells. Everywhere you went, cyclists were wearing them—a town full of two-wheeled Hellraisers.

That’s odd, we thought. Australian fashion sure is different. If only we’d known the truth of the matter.

We were in town to take in Port Macquarie’s beautiful coastal walk, a nine-kilometre one-way trek through beach and rainforest. From May to November, humpback whales splash playfully in the warm waters offshore as they continue their migration from the feeding grounds of the Antarctic to their breeding grounds farther north. Along the trail—spanning eight beaches in total—1.5 metre-long goannas bask in the warmth of the sun, scurrying to the safety of the forest upon your approach. High up in the trees, koalas munch lazily on eucalyptus leaves. It’s the kind of place you’d imagine Steve Irwin must have loved.

Legs tired and stomachs hungry after a day of sightseeing, we were walking back to our hostel when danger reared its head. It was innocuous enough at first: two masked lapwings taking flight in the distance. A mixture of brown and white, with black heads and yellow wattles, the birds are seldom larger than a seagull, but are known for being fiercely territorial of their nesting grounds—and like the clueless tourists we were, we had walked right into one. Lambs to the slaughter.

The birds shrieked and squawked. Their eyes spelled murder. Death was in the air.

Like tandem kamikaze pilots, the lapwings dive-bombed the two of us in a series of attacks. We ducked and ran for cover, Hitchcock’s sixties thriller come to life. Human screams and bird calls became indistinguishable in the fray, one chorus of chaos building to a crescendo. As we made it to relative safety, heartbeats thumping in our ears, we realized one thing was missing: our sunglasses. They lay tantalizingly close in the grass, prisoners of our feathered foes. We tried edging closer, only to endure one winged assault after another.

They weren’t going to make it easy.

In an act of equal parts folly and courage, my friend let out a primal scream and made a mad dash into the fray, scooping up his shades. Mine were nowhere to be seen. I tried looking a few more times, to no avail—each time, being greeted with an aerial attack. I plotted my moves like an in-his-prime Barry Sanders evading tacklers, juking and pirouetting through the grass, eyes fixed on the ground for any glint of reflected sunlight. By the end, I was ready to give up and call it a day. To the victors go the spoils, as they say.

As we prepared to leave, we heard the sounds of laughter from across the street. A woman watching from the apartment building nearby walked over, still chuckling, and plucked my sunglasses from the ground, handing them to me. She said she’d finished having a good laugh and decided to put me out of my misery.

I walked away with my sunglasses that day, but my pride is still somewhere in the grass. All the more reason to go back.


This column appeared in the Calgary Herald on Saturday, May 12th, 2018.

 

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