TW: This story contains dialogue around suicide and loss
A university student has brought her voice to the limelight when addressing suicide and the mental health of students.
Students have seen an increase in anxiety and depression throughout Canada, and in Calgary, Alta.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 15-34, according to StatsCan.
And the loss of a young man showed people around him that even the happiest people can be afflicted with mental distress and illness.
Liam Nishizawa died from suicide on Dec. 18, 2019. Born on April 6, 2004, he was 15 years old.
He is described as a kind, happy, and caring young man, “With the most amazing, beautiful smile.”
“Liam wasn’t somebody who on the street you would look at and think he was struggling,” said Kaylee Nishizawa, a University of British Columbia – Okanagan (UBC) student and entrepreneur.
“That’s what mental health is. It’s not what people put up as a front, because anybody can put on a mask. It’s what’s going on internally.”
Health and wellness are Nishizawa’s passions, and she is working towards a degree in clinical exercise physiology with a minor in psychology.
She spoke at a conference in SAIT’s Orpheus Theatre in the Campus Centre when a client, who is a SAIT student, asked her to speak publicly.
The loss of Liam sent Nishizawa and her family on a spiral, with Nishizawa shutting herself out from society and friends.
“Losing him was probably one of the most…” Nishizawa said.
After a pause, she continued, “I don’t even know what words quite describe a situation of that calibre.”
Nishizawa said his suicide was unexpected.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nishizawa returned to Kelowna to continue her education at UBC – Okanagan, and it was these times that challenged her wellbeing.
“I slept outside for four months in the winter,” Nishizawa said.
“If I even thought of Liam, if I thought of anything, I would just go into turmoil. And the one thing that helped me was being outside”
While living in Kelowna, Nishizawa’s mother reached out to Centennial High School to speak on the loss of Liam, and to help the youth feel supported and loved.
When her mother told her this, Nishizawa asked to join her and speak on the matter.
Soon afterwards, she made her way to Calgary to join her mother at Centennial High in March 2020. However, there were immediate barriers to overcome when she came back to Calgary.
“I couldn’t even step into the driveway. I couldn’t get out of the car. I couldn’t step foot into a dark house where my brother passed away,” Nishizawa said.
“It was like facing the demons that you never want to face.”
A good friend of Nishizawa’s came by to help her; however, she was still uncertain if this was something she should do.
Nishizawa was able to summon the courage to speak on stage with her mother, doing her best to not “break down, and you can’t break down on stage.”
“It’s not easy to chat and be open about the worst days of your life.”
After she spoke, the speech was shared on social media through a couple videos, combining to reach over 10,000 people.
“I have this undeniable need to speak on suicide, because there are immediate dangers with these kids,” Nishizawa said.
Let’s Talk Mental Health
Nishizawa has found the courage to speak on these matters on a regular basis through one of her various businesses as an esthetician.
“You sit on my bed for three hours or two hours, whatever it is, and I just chat your ear off truthfully,” Nishizawa said while laughing over Zoom.
“Salon time is therapy time.”
This was where she met SAIT student Brooklyn Murray.
Murray is a second-year business administration student that was charged with running a presentation for her project management class.
Murray and a couple classmates came together to present the Lionheart Foundation, which is a local mental advocacy non-profit organization.
Murray has her own dealings with mental health struggles, and this sparked curiosity and interest in working with the Lionheart Foundation.
“I felt the effects on my mental health, with a lack of social communication and everything,” Murray said in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I also realized that other people are struggling a lot more through this time.”
The group was going to go with Tyler Smith of the Humboldt Broncos, who was perfectly happy to speak on the issue.
However, the timing didn’t work, so they were left without a speaker until the last moment.
In an unexpected place, Murray found exactly what she needed.
“I find that when I’m not looking for something that’s when it comes to me,” Murray said.
A friend referred Murray to Nishizawa for brow waxing, where they both hit it off immediately.
“Kaylee and I got to talking, and we talked and talked for hours,” Murray said.
“She made me feel comfortable enough to ask her to speak.”
Continuing to Speak for Students
Nishizawa continues to advocate for the mental health of students with her open and charming demeanor.
But even with the charm and openness she displays, she is dealing with her inner critic.
“No matter how you go on stage, and no matter how you deliver, you’re there to deliver,” Nishizawa said.
“Each of these times I do it, it shows me the strength I have, the courage I have, and the ability I have.”
Nishizawa has the athlete’s mindset still, and that mindset has her cut through the nerves that are on full display on stage.
However, she does her best because, “It’s not about me, it’s about what everyone else hears.”
“That’s the courage that gets me back on stage each time.”
Because students have experienced an increase in depression and anxiety because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nishizawa continues to find ways to work away from the strain that comes from speaking openly.
Nishizawa sees these moments as growth moments. From her time at Centennial High, to speaking at SAIT, Nishizawa continues to try her best to speak for the voiceless.
“It’s helping me come to terms with my own story” Nishizawa said.
“It’s helping me come to terms with myself, bringing new connections and relationships in my life that I would never have if I wasn’t pushing through these difficult nerves, these difficult conversations.”
What can students do?
Nishizawa has multiple businesses that all run under “Kay-Rae,” and in all of these areas, she does these things for her brother.
It’s why she continues to encourage students to speak openly and have those difficult conversations.
She has a few pieces of advice to offer students that are afraid to be vulnerable.
“You’re not the only person struggling and you’re not alone,” Nishizawa said.
“It might feel that way. You might feel like no one understands. But once you actually share and open up what you’re experiencing and what you’re going through, you’ll find there’s strength in numbers.”
“But if you don’t open up, you don’t provide an opportunity to connect.”
Help is available for Calgarians, and there are sources to help with mental distress and illness.
If a loved one is currently experiencing suicidal ideation, call 911 in an emergency.
Distress Centre Calgary: (403) 266-1601
Centre for Suicide Prevention: (403) 245-3900
Alberta Mental Health Help Line: 1 (877) 303-2642
CMHA Peer Support: (403) 297-1700
Alejandro Melgar is a second-year graduating student in the online-print journalism stream. He is the editor-in-chief of The Emery Weal and contributor. You can find his work on LiveWire Calgary and on his website here.