Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Supporting Students in Times of Tragedy

university students grief

The recent tragedy involving the fatal stabbings of five Calgary university students has left the entire country reeling with shock and disbelief. Outside of immediate family and friends, University of Calgary students are those most strongly affected by the deaths of their peers. How does a student body, faculty and staff recover from such a set-back in morale, which has undoubtedly affected their studies as well as personal mental health? Just as importantly, how can Colleges and Universities be proactive and prepare themselves in anticipation of a tragedy occurring in their schools?

Considering that the university and college age demographic is highly vulnerable to mental health issues, especially in light of such tragedy and grief, it is vital that the educational institution bands together as a community to keep one another safe. The University of Calgary has been working diligently to provide support to the students of the university, encouraging them to participate in the vigils, funerals and celebrations of life for the victims, offering counselling sessions as well as accommodating students who wish to defer exams. How else can we support our students in a time like this?

Communication and Active Listening: Loss of life, especially of young people with such bright futures, can be very triggering for individuals within a community, so it is important that there are platforms for people to talk and listen to each other. Having counsellors available for students, staff and faculty as well as encouraging students to listen to and support one another is helpful in making people feel part of their community during difficult times.

Promote alternative counselling: Because university and college students fall into the Millennial generation, they sometimes prefer communicating through technology versus more traditional talk-therapy. Options like phone counselling, e-counselling, video-chat or the use of a mobile app, can target students who are less likely to ask for help outright and can access support within their comfort zone.

Prevention:  Often times, organizations are in a reactive mode to solving a problem, acting as if it was unexpected.  To be proactive is to be planned and prepared, albeit as much as one can be, and it is prudent when operating in a student environment.

Programs that help organizations be prepared for a tragic event should include the following:

1) Developing a Emergency Response Plan, such as the one the University of Toronto implemented in 2009  that maps out the course of action to take when a tragedy strikes an educational facility, utilizing all the available resources at your disposal.  But this is not enough:  all students and staff need to understand what that plan is, and know how to act accordingly in the event of a school crisis.  Just like there are school fire drills in case of fire, there should be emergency drills in case of campus violence.

2) As I’ve mentioned before in a previous blog, Millennial students often lack solid coping skills upon entering the post-secondary education setting. As a more long-term solution, an institution could implement Coping Skills Training, which would help students identify triggers to their mental health, and learn strategies to support themselves through a mental health issue

3) Stress Management Strategies, like the ones offered featured on the Santa Clara University can help individual students who are under pressure, feeling anxious, lonely, scared, or lost, to learn to cope with their mental health issues. For example, stress busting events that aim to help students relax during stressful times, such as during the exam period and during the harsh winter months, have been adopted by universities and colleges Stress Busters can help students learn the skills necessary in times of grief as well, as it can give students the permission they need to distract themselves from their period of anxiety and pressure.

What other strategies could an educational institution employ to support students during times of trauma, grief, and loss? What have you seen universities and Colleges do? I look forward to your thoughts below.

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Don’t Dismiss the Possibility of Workplace Violence

workplace violenceA mark of feeling safe in your work environment is that you rarely think about safety. A sense of safety and wellness is the ultimate goal for all workplaces and this can only be truly achieved when safety and violence prevention is addressed openly in the workplace. As much as believing that the chances of a violent episode occurring in your workplace are slim to none, indifference can leave you vulnerable and unprepared for an emergency situation.

Just last Wednesday in North York, Ontario, employees of a Toronto-based HR company, were victims of this kind of violent episode when an employee stabbed four people in the office with a weapon while in the process of being terminated from the company. The victims were sent to the hospital with varying degrees of injuries and other employees subdued the aggressor until the authorities arrived.

The perpetrator was described by his coworkers and neighbours as a mild, friendly, and dedicated family man, making this violent outbreak even more unexpected and upsetting. How are employers expected to keep their work environment safe with such a lack of warning signs?

As much as you cannot be prepared for every possible emergency scenario, employers can put measures and tools in place to be prepared for violence in the workplace:

Workplace Violence Prevention Training: Ultimately, you cannot have a productive, high-functioning work environment when employees worry about their own safety, so organizing violence prevention training can arm employees with tools and knowledge in preparation for the possibility  of a workplace emergency situation. Training also brings the topic into the open, where employees can voice concerns and your organization can engage in dialogue and develop mutual expectations understanding about violence in the workplace.

Workplace Violence Protocol: It’s important that organizations give their employees a clear and concise protocol to follow when an emergency situation arises. Without such a protocol in place, some experts are saying this could be considered as negligent as not having fire alarms. Some organizations are adopting easy-to-remember phrases such as: Run, Hide, and (as a last resort) Defend.

Education from your HR department: Your HR department is equipped with helpful information and educational resources for your employees to take advantage of. Open the lines of communication with your personnel and HR to ensure that people have access to the information they want and need.

Awareness of possible crisis situations: Educate yourself about potentially triggering situations, such as termination, review meetings, conflict meetings, etc. and be sure that you are prepared and ready to respond to an emergency situation.

And finally, while it is vital to understand what reactive measures are appropriate responses to violence, being as proactive as possible in your workplace by taking note of changes and cues will keep everyone safer.

Know your People: While people often are able separate their work and personal life, make sure you take care to notice of any changes in performance or behaviour in your employees. Experts generally recognize that workplace violence occurs when troubled employees encounter troubling situations, so remain aware of cues that one of your employees is not doing well, and could be predisposed to a violent outbreak. Take care to treat any concerns or potential threats as serious and follow-up appropriately.

Talking about workplace safety may not be a pleasant topic to discuss in your organization, as everyone wants to believe that no one in his or her vicinity would be capable of an episode of violence. However, being as prepared as you can be for the unexpected will keep as many people safe as possible. And this could mean accessing resources such as your in-house security, local authorities, and, your Employee Assistance Plan, to help develop and support your workplace violence prevention plan, training and protocols.

Has your organization implemented workplace violence prevention training or protocol? Would you know what to do in case of an emergency?

Sources:

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/chuang-li-former-employee-charged-in-toronto-office-stabbings-1.260397

http://www.timesdispatch.com/workitrichmond/learning-center/labor-law-is-your-workplace-safe/article_92c3ac86-bdf6-11e3-8ab1-001a4bcf6878.html

http://www.workviolenceprevention.com/blog/employee-stabs-hr-managers


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Part 3 of 3: Our Call to Action

your_not_aloneZiggy Marley once said, “I believe we are all connected to other people. I am connected to people who are suffering. We all are.”

One of the biggest obstacles to strong mental health is the overwhelming sense of loneliness felt by our university and college-aged students. As I mentioned in the previous instalments of this 3-part blog series, while our students are more “connected” to the world via social media and their mobile devices, these same students are feeling crippling loneliness and a general lack of coping skills in their lives, as they often have not developed an identity separate from their parents or a strong sense of independence.

Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and now-celebrity is always asked if he was lonely in space. His response was that you can be hundreds of thousands miles away from Earth and feel connected to people and the universe, and, at the same time, you can also be living in the centre of a metropolitan city and feel like the loneliest person in the world. A myth endures, which allows us to assume university and college students living away from home could never be lonely in dorms with thousands of other students “partying” all the time. However, they could very well be the loneliest people on Earth.

As parents, teachers, counsellors, siblings and peers of this demographic, what can we do to better support our students? We are beginning to understand the prevalence of mental health issues in Canada and how our current resources are exhausted from the increased demand. It could take years for the health care system to implement a structure that places mental health as a higher priority, so what are the steps we can take at a grassroots level to help students and the greater community now?

Below, you will find a list of collaborations and ideas that are already being set in motion by influential Canadian industries. And you might ask yourself, how can I, as one person, make any sort of impact? Like anything, if you look to hard at the big picture, beginning the process of finding a solution can seem too overwhelming. So I’ve included ways you can support these overarching goals in your community, your workplace or even in your home.

Collaboration: Recently, the Mental Health Commission of Canada embarked on a two-day conference with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police because, more and more the police force has become first responders in mental health crises. This partnership speaks to the new understanding that working together is the only way to move forward when a problem has as many touch points in society as mental health does.

In your own environments, encourage similar collaboration with mental health as your frame of reference. This can be achieved in different ways, from a professor-student-staff initiative within the university setting or organizing representatives from various departments in your workplace to avoid working in silos.

Education: The ultimate purpose of collaboration is to educate one another and to share resources. Every Canadian stakeholder is focused on the goal to improve the accessibility and support of those who suffer from mental health issues, from the health industry, to the government, to the education system. Each has valuable information to share and ways to support people suffering from mental illness.

Seek education on how to engage someone with a mental illness, learn to look for warning signs and changes and encourage others to do the same. We are often afraid of what we don’t understand, which is why we might feel like we wouldn’t know how to address someone who is suffering. With education behind you, you can feel confident in supporting someone through a difficult time.

Connectedness: A sense of belonging and a strong personal network are tools that help people with mental health issues feel less alone in their situation. As a society, we value individualism and privacy, but perhaps the pursuit of these ideas have moved us too far away from the strength gained from an environment based on community values. Universities and colleges have placed a greater focus on connecting students with their peers, providing forums to reach out in and raising awareness of the resources that are available.

Engage in conversation with people in your life and seek to understand their perspective. Find ways to stay present in face-to-face experiences, despite the temptation to “connect” via your devices and various social networks. Learn to notice small changes in behaviour, attitude and performance in those around you and don’t be afraid to ask someone how they are doing. You might be the only person who has shown them that kind of care in a while.

How else can we support our students as they learn to cope with the pressures of university? Where do you think the changes need to begin – At the top with governments and health care, or at the bottom within our homes, schools and communities, or both? I look forward to your comments below!