The rise of U of Thrive

How 24 students came together in 24 hours to advocate for student mental health
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

Content warning: mentions of suicide.

One Tuesday morning — March 19, 2019 — Loizza Aquino was jarred out of sleep by a call from an unknown number. Two days prior, a University of Toronto student had died by suicide at the Bahen Centre for Information Technology; by that morning, word had spread. Students had planned protests, and media outlets were vying for coverage.

Aquino picked up the phone. The caller was a CBC representative, requesting her presence in the studio for the radio show Here and Now — they were hoping that she could comment on the student’s death.

Aquino is an award-winning mental health advocate who founded Peace of Mind Canada, a youth-led organization that works to reduce mental health stigma, when she was a high school student. Though she’s now a third-year student at UTSC, she has been engaged in activism since the age of nine; she has appeared on air with Global News and spoken at over a hundred events and institutions.

She frequently fields media requests, so this particular CBC request was not unusual. However, that Tuesday morning, when she answered the call, was.

Several years prior, when Aquino was 15 and still living in Winnipeg, her best friend Miguel Labossiere had died from suicide. That Tuesday morning would have been the morning of Labossiere’s 22nd birthday.

It was also the morning Aquino decided that the mental health culture at U of T needed to change. Nevertheless, before the calendar year ended, another death on campus would prompt her and a collective of students who felt the same way to come together and form U of Thrive.

Personal stories like Aquino’s are at the heart of U of Thrive, which brands itself as “a tri-campus student collective dedicated to elevating student voices on mental health.”

“Our goal is different from other mental health movements on campus,” Executive Member Ashwini Selvakumaran noted, highlighting the group’s focus on creating cultural change. “We want to showcase more of the stories students have.” By providing students with a platform to express themselves, they hope to build solidarity and a sense of community through storytelling.

U of Thrive is a movement, Aquino told me, not a club. Selvakumaran agreed, emphasizing the group’s desire to leave a legacy — to see change made and maintained. Its name is a play on the common institutional nickname given to U of T by students: ‘U of Tears.’ To Aquino, U of Thrive challenges the cutthroat competitive culture underlying the school’s mental health crisis.

“We really want to promote the idea [that] you can still take care of yourself — you can still eat your three meals a day and get your seven hours of sleep — and be a successful student,” she said. “A lot of people don’t see how it’s a possibility — and I think that’s the dangerous part.”

The group’s commitment to its work is deeply rooted in individual experiences: Selvakumaran recounted being in a dark place during her first year, and wondering, “Why am I alone, and why isn’t there anyone to help me?” If it’s within her power, she said, she never wants another student to feel that way again.

A heavy frustration with the status quo also plays a central role in what they do. “You’re paying to go to school,” Aquino pointed out. “I know that education is amazing — it’s an opportunity, and I’m grateful. But at the same time… I wish I could just go to school; I wish I could just study.”

“I wish I didn’t have to worry about the stigma surrounding mental health that makes me take time out of studying… to demand mental health awareness, to demand mental health conversation, to demand proper and adequate mental health resources.”

The time and effort of coordinating the U of Thrive events and outreach have all cut into the ability of its members to complete their mandatory school work.

“It’s the same situation as [youth climate activist] Greta [Thunberg]: Greta skipped school every Friday to have a strike,” Aquino said. “Why does she have to compromise her education to make a change? Why are we compromising our GPAs — our futures — because we’re acknowledging the fact that this is just as important, if not more important, than what we’re doing in school?”

“All this isn’t meant to blame U of T,” Aquino clarified. “We have a joint responsibility with them and we want to work with them.”

The university has since created a Presidential & Provostial Task Force on Student Mental Health in March 2019, which has released a report with recommendations for change. These are in the process of being implemented by the university.

However, Aquino quickly realized someone needed to take responsibility to ignite that conversation among students. She realized that it was up to her to take it a step further.

FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

The evening of September 28, 2019 was chilly; a layer of clouds hung low over the city. In a few hours, Daniel Caesar was set to take the stage at the Budweiser Centre for a sold-out show on his Case Study 01 tour. Aquino was in her Scarborough bedroom, preparing to head downtown to see him. But then she went online and saw the news: someone had shared a CBC News post on Facebook. Another student had died by suicide in the Bahen Centre the day before.

For Aquino, there was something unsettlingly familiar about the series of student deaths at U of T — four in less than two years. Even though it was across a prolonged period of time, the situation at U of T mirrored her own experiences back home. Later at the concert, she couldn’t help thinking of the month when four students in Winnipeg, including Labossiere, passed away.

“I just remember being so cheesed the whole night… [that] the university couldn’t just create this change on its own and identify the issue on its own. So now us students, we’re having to take time out of the time that we’re using to study… We have to create the systemic change that [the university is] basically either ignoring or not acknowledging or just incapable of identifying.”

“And so I guess that that was a little bit of the frustration, like, ‘holy shit, I really have to do this again. Come on.’ ” In that first moment of anger and exhaustion, Aquino posted an Instagram story: a call to action, for anyone else who was as frustrated as she was. She pressed send. The message was out.

At that time, Selvakumaran was in her bedroom as well, scrolling through posts about the suicide. She had just shared a poem she had written on the topic. “Immediately after, I saw [Aquino’s] story and it seemed… like I was meant to see it,” Selvakumaran recounted. “She said, ‘I’m looking to form a new movement. Any student member of the University of Toronto who is as angry at the system as I am, please join me.’ ”

Aquino started a group chat, and within half an hour it filled to capacity with fellow students, recounted Selvakumaran. People who barely knew each other coalesced around this new charge. Selvakumaran and Aquino had previously met only once at a United Way photoshoot featuring local women changemakers. Aquino played basketball with a fellow UTSC student member, and she had met another one at WE Day.

Apart from them, Aquino wasn’t acquainted with anyone else who reached out. From there, things moved fast: the group put an Instagram page together, and individual members posted calls to action on their personal social media accounts. Selvakumaran reflected how the next morning, the U of Thrive Instagram had nearly a thousand followers, and CBC reached out to request an interview.

“The most specific thing I remember in that 24 hours was how amazed I was to see the passion that really bonded students together… I am a firm believer that passion is the instigator of purpose,” Selvakumaran said.

“I think it was a bit overwhelming for all members at first,” she admitted.

“24 students formed new ‘UofThrive’ advocacy group in 24 hours”: this was what the CBC subheading read when the article broke. It was a snappy and attractive statement, but the reality was more complicated. Initially, “around 30-something people DM’d me,” Aquino recalled. Twenty-four of them would go on to plan the group’s first event. Since then, the number of active executive members has dwindled to around 10. Even still, the group has sustained their momentum.

FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

On October 10, 2019, the night of their first event, Aquino remembers gathering her team at Robarts Library and handing them clipboards a mere half hour before the event was set to begin. “It felt like deja vu,” she recalled. She had run a series of four mental health awareness events in grade 10 throughout Manitoba. This one, although miles away and years later, felt all too similar.

“Thrive” took place at Hart House, and it coincided with World Mental Health Day. “We formed [U of Thrive] with the intention to just have this one event,” Aquino said. But the night was a hit, and then she realized how hungry students were to share their stories.

“We decided maybe this is something we should do more often,” she said.

So they did. “Welcome to ‘I Will,’ ” read the slide projected at the front of Innis Town Hall several months later, on February 10. I sat there that night and watched the dimly lit room fill slowly, from front to back. At 7:20 pm, Aquino and fellow U of Thrive member Mohammed Ali stepped into a pool of white light at the front of the auditorium and introduced themselves. They read out a schedule of speakers and performers, and then they took their seats.

In the next hour, one by one, students — some whom I recognized, most of whom I did not — took the stage. They shared stories of abuse, bullying, and grief — of finding themselves again and falling in love. Some sang songs, some simply got up and spoke.

After most of the speakers had finished, Aquino took the stage to remember Labossiere. She talked about how they were both alike and different — he loved getting in trouble; she hated getting in trouble. He wasn’t very booksmart, and she wasn’t either, but they both wanted to be.

Labossiere was 18 when he died. This year, it will have been five years since he passed away, and Aquino still remembers the moment she found out about his death with aching clarity. She said that her old basketball coach texted her, and he asked if she had heard from Labossiere recently. When she said she hadn’t, though she had been with him yesterday, her coach told her that Labossiere had died by suicide.

She said that she remembered sitting there on the couch for the next day. She played back the last moment she had with him. The day before Labossiere had passed away, they were walking out of school together. He was on one side of the road, and she was on the other side. He called her name, and she asked him what he wanted.

They had been fighting for months. He asked if they could talk; she told him she was tired and had to catch the bus, but she’d see him tomorrow. She remembered him asking, “Are you not gonna come cross the street and give me a hug?” She told him she’d give him one tomorrow, and left to catch her bus. A week later, she was standing next to his open casket delivering his eulogy.

She told stories about him to a room full of people who loved him. What she wished most was that he was there to see it.

When she dropped by Labossiere’s house one more time, his parents let her keep a shirt of his. She said that not a day that goes by where she doesn’t think about him.

Aquino’s main goal in this world is to help just one person. To her, when you save one person, you save everyone who loves them. And everybody has a village of people who love them, whether they know it or not.

That night, I watched as students came together to share stories that were heavy and heartbreaking, but also hopeful. I saw a microcosm of what the U of T community could be, if drawn out of its shell.

It humbled me.

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If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566

Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454

Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600

Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200

U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

Talking about wanting to die

Looking for a way to kill oneself

Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain

Talking about being a burden to others

Increasing use of alcohol or drugs

Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly

Sleeping too little or too much

Withdrawing or feeling isolated

Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

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