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.
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 her 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.”