Carina Pereira, an international student from Brazil, took time out of her day to spread love and light to each precious life. Photo credit: Chanelle Pinard

White paper bags, a variety of colourful markers, scissors and tea lights sat on the table where students were invited to design a lantern of hope.

The paper lanterns were meant to represent those we have lost, those who are affected by suicide and for those who may be battling with dark thoughts.

These tools were set up at booths in various locations around Algonquin’s campus from Feb. 10 to 13 in honor of Suicide Prevention Awareness Week.

Staff from counselling services and the Mamidoeswin Centre were present each day to answer questions, have conversations and to support people with the resources they need to seek help.

This support was offered at an especially relevant time as Ottawa’s post-secondary community is coping with another difficult experience.

Five student deaths by suicide at the University of Ottawa in 10 months has recently been declared a mental health crisis for the school and its students.

“Having so many deaths so close to us, impacts our students here,” said Nicole Lewis, one of the counsellors present. “Many people at OttawaU are known to our Algonquin students so there is a lot of support needed both through faculty and students.”

Counsellor Nicole Lewis spends her time at the booth decorating a variety of heart-felt lanterns.
Counsellor Nicole Lewis spends her time at the booth decorating a variety of heart-felt lanterns. Photo credit: Chanelle Pinard

An international student who is in her first semester of business marketing, Carina Pereira, stopped by the booth on her way to class.

“Just to say that I’m here, I’m available to hear what you have to say because I really care about life,” she said. “I have two kids, so I know how it’s so important.”

Participants could choose an example quote provided at the booth or write a meaningful message that they could either carry as a reminder or pass to someone else that may need to hear those words.

“It’s kind of a reciprocal thing,” Lewis said. “Somebody might make a bag and then take one in order for them to really be able to heal and move forward.”

Some students punched holes on the sides of their lanterns as a decorative design and wrote vibrant words of encouragement to be the light in someone’s day.

“You’re very special, take care of yourself, come to your family and friends,” Pereira said she wrote on her lantern.

“Sometimes what the person needs is only a hug to feel lovely and that is so simple,” she said. “Now that I am here, I have no family here, so a simple smile can change my day. A little thing that we do for the other, can represent a lot.”

Each year, the college tries to ensure they bring awareness to the campus and college students.

The steering committee plans mental health initiatives to start opening up the conversation. This particular lantern-making activity, coordinated by Jackie Tenute, a counsellor from the Mamidosewin Centre, welcomes all individuals into a creative safe space and has seen successful outcomes for the last three years.

“Overall, it’s been received really well, in general people are asking for more,” said Lewis. “Everyone who stopped by has really been appreciative and asking questions.”

The lanterns of hope or remembrance were displayed at that day’s booth and in the evening at the Mamidosewin Centre and AC Hub.

The remaining lanterns will be shared at different events that run throughout the year. “Someone might be having a really rough day and so sometimes we’ll collect tears in the bags and have a safe space for them,” Lewis said.

“It might just be giving it to someone who really needs that piece of inspiration or maybe there’s something on one of the bags that is just drawing somebody to that, and they really need that for themselves, and that’s great.”

The goal of the awareness week was to create a safe community where mental illness is discussed openly and to reduce the stigma of talking about suicide.

There are free confidential walk-in counselling services on campus every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “If they need support after hours, they can call the crisis line or there’s a post-secondary student support line called Good2Talk and they can contact them both through phone and text messaging,” Lewis said. “So, a really great service if anyone is really struggling particularly in the evenings and weekends.”

“Having people stop by who have been here every day to the various booths to be able to do another bag to provide support to other students, it’s just been really inspiring,” she said. “I’ve done similar things in the past but seeing people come recognize their bags, has been really inspirational.”