Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Eating Disorders: What You Need To Know

As someobelly-2354_960_720ne who has worked in the mental health field for 30 years, I’m no stranger to working with clients who have suffered from eating disorders. This past week was Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time dedicated to reducing the stigma associated with eating disorders and creating awareness about the mental health issue that affects approximately 1 million Canadians every year.

So what exactly is an eating disorder? In simple terms, an eating disorder is a mental health issue that leaves individuals completely pre-occupied with their weight. However, according to The Canadian Mental Health Association, eating disorders are not just about food. They are often a way to cope with difficult problems or regain a sense of control. They are complicated disorders that affect a person’s sense of identity, worth and self-esteem.

Unsurprisingly, eating disorders are most common in females. A recent report found that 3% of Canadian women will suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetime. This can happen for a number of reasons. Female body image is constantly critiqued in popular culture, and as a result, women are more likely to develop disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia in an effort to control their weight.

While eating disorders are more common in females, body image issues impact males as well. Men are exposed to a similar level of body critique, mainly that they need to be muscular and strong. This kind of societal pressure can result in men developing eating disorders or taking hormones like steroids to increase their muscle mass. Steroid use, like an eating disorder, also has a long-term negative impact on a person’s health.

Effects of eating disorders may not always be apparent. For example, anorexia sufferers generally have a very low body mass index (BMI), but people suffering from bulimia often maintain a relatively stable body weight. Here are some tips on how you can identify if a friend or employee is suffering from an eating-related mental health issue.

  • Food obsession
    It’s important to note when someone begins to obsess about food, for example, constantly counting calories or eliminating large groups of “bad” foods from their diet, especially if this was never a topic of conversation before.
  • Excessive exercise
    Physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, but when you begin to notice someone is taking his or her gym routine to the next level it can be cause for concern. People with eating disorders often attempt to “work-off” the bad calories they have consumed after a binge, to the point where they are putting their bodies through physical discomfort.
  • Body image issues.
    While losing weight can be a side effect of an eating disorder, it can also increase the level of anxiety a person may have towards their body. Even though they may be losing weight, someone suffering from an eating disorder might wear baggy clothes to cover up their body. Take notice if someone in your life begins expressing dissatisfaction with his or her body more frequently.
  • Depression.
    Symptoms of eating disorders often mimic the symptoms of depression due to the lack of energy, low morale and lack of sufficient sleep the disease causes. People suffering from eating disorders tend to isolate themselves from groups, especially if food is involved. If you notice someone exhibiting symptoms of depression while showing signs of negative body image or food obsession, it could be cause for concern.

The impact of any eating disorder can be devastating. From restricting the body of food to choosing to binge eat and then purge, eating disorders can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental health. Short-term effects include poor digestion, kidney issues, anxiety and depression while long-term issues include infertility in women or death as a result of malnutrition.

Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, employer or friend, it’s important to know how to spot the signs of an eating disorder so if someone you know is impacted, you can help. Confronting someone about an eating-related mental health issue is difficult, but it’s important to get your loved one the help they need before they cause irreparable damage.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, it’s important to get help. Contact your EAP or SAP provider for assistance, or speak to a medical professional.

For more advice on this issue, visit The National Eating Disorder Information Centre or CAMH.

 


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Good Grief: Managing Loss in Your Workplace

shutterstock_160641419Dealing with the death of a loved one is one of the most difficult challenges we face in life. I have experienced grief in my own life, so I know that it can feel like your entire world has abruptly collapsed, which is why returning to work after a personal loss can be incredibly tough.

In Canada, employers are required to give their employees three days of paid bereavement leave when a member of their immediate family passes away. While I appreciate that employees are given time off to grieve their loss, I know that it takes longer than three days to recover from a death in the family. I recently spoke with a friend of mine who had returned to work after the loss of his mother. He said, “It was strange to return to work and act professionally when inside it felt like my whole world had been turned upside down.”

Grief doesn’t just take an emotional toll on employees. A recent study found that 85% of management-level employees ranked their decision-making skills from very poor to fair in the weeks and months following the loss of a loved one. When someone is dealing with the complex emotions associated with loss, it can be hard to focus on projects and assignments. This, in turn, can impact other employees who rely on this individual for their work, therefore creating a stressful workplace environment.

So how can managers of people deal with grief in the workplace? While everyone deals with death differently, here is a list of tips for managers on how to manage grief in the workplace.

Make accommodations: While the grieving individual is away, understand that they might not be completely “back” when they return to work. Depending on the individual’s role in the company, you can try to alleviate some of their daily work stress by asking others to help pitch in. Having minor stresses eliminated from their workload will allow the grieving individual to ease back into their role more comfortably.

Incorporate grief training into your workplace: We spend a majority of our lives at work, so we are bound to experience grief at some point in our career. Knowing this, a proactive plan to deal with grief in the workplace could resolve a lot of issues. Teach your employees about the grieving process and how to deal with an employee who has lost someone. That way, if and when the time comes, they will understand how to better deal with the situation.

Give them a chance to talk: Some people want to talk through their emotions while others prefer to internalize them. No matter who the employee is, as a manager, make it your responsibility to let them know that you are there for them if they ever want to discuss their grief.

Get help: While there is a difference between grief and depression, the loss of a loved one can trigger depression. If an employee is having a difficult time adjusting after they have lost someone close to them and they continue to show signs of depression, contact your organization’s EAP provider. They can provide mental health support that will help your employee through this difficult time.

Loss can be overwhelming. Knowing your organization has the tools in place to help employees through this difficult time will make it easier to cope with grief in your workplace.

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World Mental Health Day: What is Psychological First Aid?

On Monday, October 10th, we celebrated World Mental Health Day. Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) dedicates a day to raise awareness for the millions of people all over the world who are dealing with mental health issues. As someone who has worked in the mental health field for over 25 years, I can’t begin to express how pleased I am that we now have a day dedicated to mental health awareness, globally. For a large part of my career, mental health issues were often stigmatized and hidden from the world, but as society has progressed, we are now able to more openly discuss these issues.

This year, the WHO chose “Psychological First Aid” as the World Mental Health Day theme. When we think first aid, we often picture either a first aid kit or a first responder like a police officer or firefighter. Psychological first aid is different. Instead of quickly responding to and healing physical injuries, psychological first aid is a practice that involves treating people for psychological damage after traumatic incidents.

Psychological first aid (PFA) is defined as “the evidence-informed approach for assisting people in the aftermath of disaster and terrorism.” PFA occurs when trained individuals quickly assess a person’s mental health after an incident, and can help them remain calm and get them the psychological assistance they need, as opposed to letting them deal with the traumatic event on their own. For example, PFA is often utilized when people in a war-torn nation have been subjected to a violent event. Field workers who specialize in the subject are brought in to help the people who have witnessed the trauma, and have been trained to give them the proper psychological attention they need.

We live in a world where, unfortunately, traumatic events occur. War, natural disasters and violence occur frequently all over the globe. On a smaller scale, accidents can happen in our own communities that leave us mentally shaken.

For example, a recent train derailment in New Jersey resulted in the death of a woman waiting on the platform. This shocking incident would have been traumatic for not only those directly involved, but for anyone connected to the situation. After an event like this occurs, it’s crucial to assess the physical health of all those involved, but neglecting to treat them immediately for psychological trauma can result in long-lasting scars on a person’s mental health.

Say one of your colleagues witnesses a horrific car crash on their way to work. Once they get to the office, they attempt to go about their day, business as usual, instead of processing the intense emotions they feel after witnessing that event. If internalized for too long, this employee might suffer from long-term mental health issues as a result, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. It’s important that HR managers have the knowledge to deal with a situation like this as fast as possible.

Training for psychological first aid is similar to that of physical first aid, in that you need to take a course in order to be properly trained. For those HR managers who have not yet taken the course, here are a few “first-steps” on how you can help someone who has just been through a crisis:

After assessing the environment for safety concerns and familiarizing yourself with the event that has taken place:

  1. Make contact. It’s important that you approach this person respectfully. It’s hard to judge what they might be thinking at that moment, as they will most likely be experiencing shock. As you carefully begin talking to them, let them know you are here to help and will keep them safe.
  1. Ask about needs and concerns. While this may seem obvious in some situations, it’s important to ask what they need at that moment and what their priorities are. If they need to make a call, you can help facilitate that.
  2. This is the most important step of PFA. If the employee is willing to talk, it’s crucial that you listen to what they have to say. Talking about a traumatic event can be difficult but it allows people to feel less alone.
  3. Refer them to your organization’s EAP. They have the tools to handle these kinds of situations, and will be able to assist your employee throughout the healing process.

Traumatic events don’t just impact the people directly involved. If someone in your office has been through a crisis, it can impact the entire workplace. Unfortunately, we live in a world where accidents happen. I’m so pleased that World Mental Health Day has been able to spotlight this necessary training. It’s important that HR managers know the basic principles of PFA, in case they ever need to utilize it in their workplace and help an employee through a difficult situation.

 

 

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Dealing With An Empty Nest

While thousands of Canadian students are adjusting to their first few weeks of university or college, parents are facing a new challenge as well. For many, this is the first year their children have gone away to school and moved out of the family home. While seeing our children grow up and mature as adults is exciting for any parent, we can also be left with feelings of emptiness and sadness.

The first year of university or college symbolizes the beginning of adulthood for incoming freshmen, but it can feel like the end of an era for a lot of parents. The concept of ‘attachment’ is well documented in the work of John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who in the late 1950s, developed a theory of personality based around attachment. Bowlby defined attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings, one that is universal among all cultures’. Bowlby believed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant. He believed that children have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or threatened.

Fast forward to 2016 and we find that when that close proximity to the family home is removed, like when our children go off to live at university or college, the impact is not only felt by the child, but also by the parents.  So what happens when the attachment between a parent and child is disengaged?

We start to feel what we commonly refer to now as ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’. The Mayo Clinic defines Empty Nest Syndrome as feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. While the term “Empty Nest Syndrome” is relativity new in the mental health world, the sadness associated with children leaving home is not.

I recently read an article on the subject in The Washington Post, where author Michael Gearson wrote about his son, “He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go.” Sometimes as parents, we focus on our children so much that we forget what life was ever like without them.

When my children left for university and college, I distinctly remember how quiet my home felt. Letting go of the role we’ve had for 18 plus years was a difficult adjustment. It felt like I had lost an extension of myself like a part of my identity had been taken away. In single-parent households, Empty Nest Syndrome can be especially difficult to handle, as children are often the parent’s primary companions.

Although I am a firm believer that a major role as parents is to teach our children to become independent so they are prepared to thrive without us, the adjustment for not only our children, but for parents, can be difficult.

The first few weeks of a quiet home without our children are always difficult As you settle in to your new life as an empty nester, here are some tips to get you through the initial transition:

  • Keep in touch. With modern technology, our loved ones are only ever a phone call or a Face Time away. While it’s important to give your children some space to grow, it’s comforting to know you can contact them anytime.
  • Develop new hobbies. With more free time, parents can participate in new activities or take interesting classes to give themselves more of an identity outside of being a parent.
  • Reach out. Friends and family members are sure to have gone through a similar experience, it’s important for parents to talk to someone about their feelings of loss. If feelings of sadness and loneliness persist, consider counselling or look into your company’s EAP.
  • Stay Positive. This new freedom allows parents to indulge in dreams they’ve been putting off for years, like taking that trip you’ve always talked about!

Letting go of your children is hard. As parents, it’s important to remember that while we might have a hard time dealing with their absence, our children are growing into the independent, educated, and well-rounded adults we always dreamed they’d become.

And just remember, whenever it feels like you miss your child too much, they’ll be home for Thanksgiving with a truckload of laundry for you.

 

 


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See The Signs – Recognizing Mental Health Issues in the Workplace

mental-healthJust a few weeks ago at a high school outside of Toronto, a fourteen-year-old girl stabbed and injured five students and two staff members. As a result, there has been more dialogue about bullying, mental illness and mental health, as we are reminded of the importance and seriousness of attending to mental illness in the workplace.

Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Stigma surrounding mental illness is widespread, often flying under the radar in the workplace because employees tend to suffer in silence – afraid to risk their careers by speaking out and employers are afraid to ask. Recognizing the signs can be crucial to preventing serious situations from developing, and ensuring supports are in place.

Being able to recognize when your employees are distressed, and addressing these concerns, can help to break down the stigma and allow for communication between you and your staff. Let me share with you some tips on recognizing the symptoms of a possible mental health issue with an employee:

  • Missed deadlines
  • Reduced productivity
  • Reduced quality of work
  • Absent or late more frequently
  • Relationship issues or conflicts with co-workers
  • Withdrawal or reduced participation
  • Anxiety, fearfulness, or loss of confidence

Each of these signs alone does not necessarily indicate the presence of an illness, but each can begin a conversation to show your employee, as their employer, that you are supportive and accommodating, especially if performance is suffering. Employees are more likely to ask for help from their employer when you provide them with a caring environment and the probability of their success will increase as well.

Social media can be helpful in providing insight, as the young woman’s blog was her cry for help in the case of the Dunbarton High School stabbing. It is crucial for an organization to be trained and able to identify the signs of an employee who may be in danger of hurting themselves and/or others due to their mental state.

Early recognition of mental health problems, consultation for your supervisors with your EAP, referring employees with the above symptoms to the EAP for assessment, treatment and support, will all help your employees receive the support they require to return to work and/or better manager their job.

The bottom line here is that when your organization creates a mentally healthy work environment for your employees, it allows them to achieve and maintain success.


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PTSD and Your Workplace: Tips to Understanding and Supporting Your Employees

PTSD blogThis past week, we were asked once again to commemorate Remembrance Day, and the men and women we have lost in battle, as well as those who have returned to Canadian soil with not just physical but also mental wounds. The citizens of Paris, and the world at large (mainly through 24/7 media), are currently being impacted by the senseless terrorism of this past weekend to the point where people may be asking themselves: “is the world at war?”

Trauma can affect anyone, not just our brave soldiers, and the emotional scars can affect our personal and professional lives, deeply.

There are many difficult circumstances we all must cope with at some point in our lives, but some individuals will experience sudden or unexpected devastating events that can be psychologically impactful. When individuals with this kind of experience “re-live” the situation that caused fear and shock through: sleepless nights, nightmares and fear, loss of appetite, interest, concentration, and flashbacks among others – and these feelings persist in their daily lives long after the event – they may be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can be caused by a psychologically traumatic event involving actual or threatened death or serious injury to oneself or others. Often, the symptoms of PTSD can emerge even three months after the incident, and for some, a stressor can cause symptoms to surface years later. When symptoms are delayed, those with PTSD don’t often make the connection between the traumatic event and the feelings and behavioural symptoms.

These signs may first become apparent in the workplace as performance-related issues. There may be changes in behaviour that seem out of character, as well as social and interpersonal conflicts, resistance to authority, bullying, or emotional eruptions. Avoidance of certain activities (such as driving if involved in a car accident), sleep disruptions, difficulty concentrating, and being easily startled or irritated are some additional indicators of PTSD, and mental health issues such as depression or addictions may also be present.

Some occupations such as soldiers, firefighters, doctors, paramedics, police officers and nurses – namely first responders, have double the risk of experiencing PTSD, but the disorder can affect anyone. With about 8% of Canadians experiencing PTSD at some point in their lives, some of your employees could be suffering in silence, and that has a direct impact on their personal wellbeing, productivity, and on your organization.

People with PTSD may feel shame or guilt, and because of this, they may be hesitant to disclose. So how can you help your employees cope if they’re afraid to reach out? Ask your employee what would be helpful to him/her.

I’d like to share with you a number of tips to accommodate some of the more common issues that arise among sufferers of PTSD in the workplace:

  • Memory: provide employees with written instructions and meeting minutes, verbal prompts and reminders and encourage employees to use organizers and lists
  • Lack of concentration: reduce workplace distractions, increase natural lighting
  • Coping with stress: allow time off for counselling, assign a supervisor, manager, or mentor to answer employee questions. Encourage employees to walk away from frustrations and confrontations, allow frequent breaks
  • Working effectively with a supervisor: provide positive reinforcement, give clear expectations
  • Dealing with emotions: refer employees to your Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a safe haven to speak freely about PTSD
  • Panic attacks: allow employee to take a break and go somewhere s/he feels comfortable to use relaxation techniques or contact a support person. Identify and remove triggers (noises, smells, or visuals).

In what ways do you accommodate your employees? How are you raising awareness in the workplace of PTSD and resources that are available?


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Robin Williams: Depression in the Spotlight

Robin-Williams-diedAlthough people suffer from depression everywhere and too many individuals decide to take their own lives as a result of their pain, mental illness will always get the spotlight when society loses a well-known figure to suicide.

While we probably don’t know him personally, we feel close to Robin Williams through his various movie and comedic roles. Whether you remember him best as Mork, the Genie, Mrs. Doutbfire, English teacher John Keating or Dr. Sean Maguire, Robin William’s warmth was always felt by his fans through the decades.

As the details of Robin William’s suicide surface, many have wondered how someone could bring so much joy to others around the world while quietly suffering from his own demons. Williams was believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder, an illness defined by its range of manic and depressive mood swings. It appears as though Williams had been battling an extended period of severe depression when he decided to take his own life.

What Robin Williams’ death most poignantly illustrates is that depression can overwhelm even successful, talented, wealthy and perceivably happy individuals. There is no common denominator or predictor of who can suffer depression, and everyone has a unique experience with the illness, where sometimes medications, treatments and coping skills are simply no match. For whatever reason, Williams felt that suicide was his only way to find relief from his suffering, and he is not alone in this feeling.

Can anything be learned from the terrible loss of this well-loved actor, as well the loss of so many whose names we don’t know and will never have the chance to meet?

For those who are suffering, perhaps it is the realization that, while your feelings of sadness are yours and are valid, you are not alone.

For those who know a loved one is suffering, we must learn to reach out, again and again and again, to show them how much they are loved.

Amongst the posts I’ve read over the past few days commemorating Robin Williams, nothing struck me as strongly as the following:

“If you feel isolated, I see you. If you wonder whether it all matters, I will help you find out. If you feel worthless, know that you are valued by me. If you feel the darkness closing in, there is always a little light. I will walk with you there.”