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Tragic childhood pushes U of G student to dedicate his life to mental health

Wing Tse is a recipient of the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award and the co-founder of Smileage, an organization dedicated to mental health

Wing Tse will never forget his childhood trauma, but he is also committed to changing his future and helping others along the way.

The 21-year-old University of Guelph psychology student’s courage and determination promoting mental health well-being makes him one of 16 student recipients of the Terry Fox Humanitarian Award in Canada for 2020. 

Tse has been working to support himself since middle school and with the award comes a  $28,000 scholarship.

“This was a huge relief for me,” said Tse who finally feels a sense of comfort and consolation after years of hard work. 

“Being a kid and feeling a lot of pressure, I felt like I was almost fighting the world by myself,” said Tse.  

Tse is also a full-time firefighter for the Markham Fire and Emergency Services (where he works a few 24 hour shifts per week) while attending university full time. He is also a member of the Canadian Armed Forces which requires him to train once a week. 

His story is one of inspiration and resilience. 

Tse's childhood was filled with trauma, neglect and isolation. Growing up, he never had much financial support. His said his father would gamble the family's money away and his mother, battling her own mental health and addiction issues, neglected him.  

“I was pretty much homeless throughout high school and I just worked all the time,” said Tse. 

“My mom was very abusive. One day she just had a major panic attack or something. I was too young to really realize what was going on but I woke up with her pulling my hair out and throwing me across the room. I thought I was gonna die. It was pretty traumatizing,” said Tse about the incident that took place when he was seven.

His father rescued him and called child protection services who deemed his mother no longer fit to be a parent.  

Tse said growing up in Toronto, he knew his upbringing was not normal. 

“I would always walk myself to school which I knew was odd like a Grade 2 kid walking himself  to school every day. I  knew I was obviously an outcast because honestly, a bunch of my childhood was spent in the lobby of Casino Rama while school was in session,” said Tse.  

He said as a child, he quickly realized if there’s anything to blame, it's his surroundings. 

“I think honestly, the number one rule that I live by is you can’t really control your future. Nobody can but I think your best chance at controlling your future is deciding who you decide to hang out with, or surround yourself with. I think that, like, I credit a lot of my success to that,” said Tse. 

“I think positivity breeds positivity. And negativity breeds negativity. So if you are to stick to people who are, you know, motivated and care about you and have faith and love you, you can't go wrong, I think.”

When his father decided to move out of Toronto, Tse made the decision to stay in the city while he was in middle school. He moved in with his best friend’s family who took him as their own.

“I’m glad I made that decision because you know, it just instilled a lot of confidence and fearlessness in me,” said Tse.

Tse believes his traumatic experiences as a child put him in a position where he is able to understand the complexity of childhood trauma. He committed himself toward bettering his life and those of others. 

He said his experiences as a child is what led him to pursue a career in firefighting where he could give back to the community that gave him so much. He also makes sure to prioritize physical fitness and health eating which has helped him build resiliency.

Tse’s experience with trauma, and the barriers he faced with the stigma associated in accessing mental health services, inspired him and his friend Alex Hoerner to co-found Smileage, a non-profit that supports young people facing mental health difficulties. His award will also help with ongoing development of Smileage.

The organization hosts events on mindfulness and mental health awareness. Tse also designs clothing with positive messages and stories that are sold on the Smileage website. Proceeds from the organization help fund programs at Toronto’s Stella’s Place which provides mental health services to people aged 16 to 29 years.

Tse’s Terry Fox Humanitarian Award also recognizes many of his accomplishments in high school where he started a FireFit team, a competition based on firefighting tasks. The competition helped him raise over $3,200 and recruited eight sponsors for team members to compete in future events.

He envisions becoming a therapist to support the mental health of first responders.

“After I’ve completed my education while working in the fire department, I would like to become an in-house therapist for firefighters and hopefully empathize better on a peer level to make further impact on the mental well-being and safety of firefighters,” said Tse. 

As an adult, he tries to have a healthy relationship with his parents realizing that they too, were battling with their own mental health issues. 

“I would be contradicting myself if I held all this resentment with her (his mother). Like, I obviously support mental health. And in the past, I was so angry and so confused like ‘Why would she do this? Does she not love me? What did I do wrong? Why was she always so aggressive? 

“Like now looking back, it's like, yeah, I can claim that like people with mental health issues never get any sympathy,” he said, something he has dedicated his life to changing.