Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Marijuana and Mental Health: What You Need to Know

weed-2517251_640Many, if not all of us, are aware marijuana is set to become legal in Canada in just a few short months, and there are many questions lingering as to how this will affect Canadians. Marijuana has been prescribed to treat physical conditions such as cancer, arthritis, and other physical pain for some time now, and some physicians have begun to prescribe medical marijuana for anxiety and PTSD, as well as depression. However, its effects on those users with mental health issues is largely in need of more clinical research, as the majority of research is from cannabis producers or focused on its illicit use. I want to explore these murky waters with you, and look at how medical marijuana and mental health are intimately linked.

Is Marijuana Good for Everyone’s Mental Health?

The Clinical Psychology Review recently reported that evidence has been found that marijuana can bring back feelings of pleasure for individuals with depression, and it can calm and soothe individuals with anxiety. It can even shut down the dream process for individuals living with nightmares from PTSD. However, not every mental health issue responds with a positive “high”; for some individuals with bipolar disorder, for example, there appears to be more negative side effects than positive ones.

Public opinion seems to hold that marijuana is a harmless substance that helps you to relax and “chill” and might even be good for your physical and mental health, unlike alcohol and tobacco. However, while there may be some truth to this, if higher amounts are consumed, it may instead increase anxiety and paranoia, and cause confusion and hallucinations that can last a few hours to some weeks in your system. Long-term use can also have a depressant effect and reduce motivation for some users.

Is It Addictive?

Studies suggest that marijuana may have a place in dealing with addiction, and with the sheer number of opioid overdoses in Canada as of late, we could see significant benefits if marijuana is used as a replacement for opioid medications, to reduce usage or even stop using opioids altogether. In 2013, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found that individuals living with mental health issues were 10 times more likely to have a marijuana use disorder. Usage is particularly elevated for those with bipolar disorder, personality disorders and other substance use disorders. So does marijuana use cause mental health issues, or do people with these mental health disorders use it to self- medicate? Consider how marijuana has similar effects of addictive drugs, such as:

  • Tolerance
  • Craving
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Weight loss
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Strange dreams

As well, when withdrawing, 3 out of 4 frequent and long-term marijuana users have reported experiencing cravings; half became irritable; and 7 out of 10 switch to tobacco in an attempt to stay off marijuana. At first, it can alleviate feelings of anxiety, but when the tolerance level builds, it becomes cyclical – not only does one need more to relieve the anxiety, but every attempt to stop can make the anxiety return at a more elevated level than before.

Long-term Effects and Vulnerability

Research over the last 10 years has suggested there is a possibility of developing a psychotic illness, and regular use has appeared to double the risk of developing a psychotic episode or even schizophrenia, particularly in those who are genetically vulnerable to mental illness. Early marijuana use in adolescents and later mental health problems has clearly been linked in those with a genetic vulnerability. These numbers are too high to ignore – teens who used marijuana daily were five times more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later life.

Ultimately, there is not enough research in the area of marijuana as treatment for mental health issues, and we need to hold it to the same standard as any other drug out there. As the laws change, we must remain proactive, and not reactive to what is really going on, and not create more health concerns than we are striving to reduce.

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Let’s Walk the Talk

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Image courtesy of ctvnews.ca

On January 31st, Bell Let’s Talk Day will again promote mental health awareness, acceptance and action, donating significant funds it raises to fighting stigma, supporting world-class research, improving access to care, and promoting open dialogue. This initiative makes a huge impact on social media every year, and reminds us of how important it is to be able to actually talk about mental health. As the Founder and CEO of an EAP and SAP service provider to organizations large and small, I believe that such initiatives help so many living with mental health issues, both directly and indirectly. However, the key is to not just talk the talk, but to walk the talk as well, from the top down.

When we consider how vital the well-being of our employees are to the success of the businesses we lead, to create and maintain a healthy and motivated company culture, and to the company’s bottom line, we cannot ignore the essential value of meaningful wellness programs. Wellness initiatives can range from ‘lunch and learns’ to posters in the lunchroom, to discounts at the gym to access to professional counselling, to social outings; and they all have the importance of potentially enriching the lives of the employees we support and value. Our staff work hard, dedicating themselves to achieving targets and going above and beyond for our customers and clients, so keeping them motivated and looking forward to coming to work helps keep morale high in the workplace. However, when we do not practice what we preach, and do not have programs in place, or worse, they are available but not valued, then they are perceived as ‘lip-service talk’, disingenuous, and can actually create more damage than not making them available in the first place!

As leaders in our field, we understand how the examples we set lay the foundation on whether we are truly an anti-oppressive and inclusive organization. When feeling overwhelmed or stressed, we know how important it is to have management and directors be approachable and understanding, whether the source of stress is from aspects of the job or in our personal lives. By relaying that approachability to staff, and actually following through on those accommodations and leave requests with genuine care and sincerity, we are setting examples that indicate we are walking the talk. When employees are given the opportunity to access professional help through their EAP, or taking time to stay well, we are encouraging their return-to-work sooner and demonstrating that our company is supportive. We value our staff, investing in them as employees, but also as a valuable member of the human race, one that I want to be proud of. So when we listen to employees’ mental health concerns and take action, that indicates genuine support, and we are truly engaging in open dialogue – so let’s talk!

How is your organization walking the talk? What things have you put in place to ensure your organization is supporting mental health? I look forward to hearing from you!


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Keeping Physically and Mentally Fit this Winter

k-s21-eye-0187November is here and the countdown to the holiday season can officially begin. As we look forward to spending time with family and friends, it’s important that we prepare for some of the gloomier elements that the colder weather brings. After all, colder weather is known to negatively affect our bodies, as well as our mental health. When our physical health takes a toll, our mental health can be affected as a result. But if we take a proactive, preventative approach, we can improve our physical and mental health all while fighting the winter blahs.

Here are my recommendations for maintaining a healthy mind and body this winter:

  • Keep moving – One of the biggest health issues in winter is that we limit the amount of time we spend being active. Spending time each day being active, even if it’s simply going for a walk around your office, has been shown to improve your physical health. If you’re fond of winter weather, you can partake in weather-related activities such as sledding or building a snowman with your family, or ice-skating with your significant other or friends.
  • Eat healthy – It’s no secret that winter is flu season, and if you work in a larger office, it won’t be hard to find a co-worker with a cold this winter. Your body is spending more energy than usual to stay warm, so it’s important that you incorporate immune-system boosting foods, like fruits, vegetables and yogurt into your diet, so that you’re less likely to be bogged down with a winter ailment.
  • Make time to reduce stress – Everyone has different ways to reduce their stress levels. For some, simply taking the time to reflect on the cause of the stress does wonders. For others, taking a day off is needed to adjust and refocus. Whatever your technique, remember to make time to schedule it in, even if it doesn’t feel absolutely necessary. I have a few ideas to help you reduce stress: listen to music, meditate, connect with friends and family, and ensure you get enough sleep each night.

You may notice that to improve your health and mood this winter, you won’t need to take any truly drastic steps. It can be challenging to juggle all the hustle and bustle of the season, so living a physically healthy lifestyle this winter can go a long way in managing your mental health. After all, this holiday season is about celebrating with family and friends; and, as long as you take a few proactive steps, you’ll be ready to celebrate in good spirits!


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International Longevity Month: Stress in the Workplace

Workplace StressOctober is International Longevity Month. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss the relationship between workplace stress and life expectancy and what you can do to help reduce the stress levels your employees may be experiencing. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “worked to death”. Sadly, it’s more than just an expression; it can be a reality in the workplace. Studies have shown that stress in the workplace can actually shorten your life.

“Decades of health research has found that the effects of stress compounds over time, starting with psychological stress, which can eventually lead to physical problems like high blood pressure and even death,” according to Erik Gonzalez-Mule, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. In order to cope with stress, many people resort to unhealthy behaviours like smoking, drinking too much, over-eating or living a sedentary lifestyle. Other employees may up and leave before their stress levels become dangerous. In fact, according to Monster Canada, 25% of Canadians admit to leaving a job due to stress and another 17% have considered it.

What are the symptoms of stress?

According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, these (among others) are the signs of stress to watch out for:

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings
  • Poor concentration
  • Low productivity
  • Forgetfulness
  • Avoidance of social activities
  • Increased use of alcohol or tobacco
  • Headaches
  • Over or under eating
  • Sweaty palms
  • Fatigue
     

What can you do to help reduce the stress levels among your employees?

It’s important to create healthy psychosocial work environments. I have several suggestions for creating less stressful, happy workplaces:

  • Flexible work schedules – gives employees a feeling of having control.
  • Work from home option – alleviates the stress of a long commute or taking children to and from daycare
  • Open communication between management and employees – provides a safe environment for employees to discuss their situations and to ask for help or accommodation
  • Encourage out-of-work team bonding – helps to build relationships and social connections
  • If there is an onsite gym or yoga classes, promote its use – or partially subsidize membership in a nearby offsite facility (if possible)
  • Encourage employees to take short breaks during the course of the day and get up from their desks at lunch – even a short walk or chatting with a colleague can help relieve stress

Creating a less stressful workplace is important for your employees and for your company. Employees becoming ill (or worse) due to stress, going on stress-leave or quitting due to stress can cause havoc with morale, productivity, and your bottom line. A happy and healthy workplace is good for your employees and it’s good business.


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Spotlight on Mental Health: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

wool-2742119_1280Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 1 – October 7) is an annual national public education campaign designed to create awareness of mental illness. Although there are many faces of mental illness, I’d like to spotlight Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) which is often greatly misunderstood. OCD can affect anyone, and according to the Canadian Psychological Association approximately 1% to 2% of the Canadian population will have an episode of OCD in their lifetime.

What is OCD?

OCD is made up of two parts – obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted and repetitive thoughts, urges or images that don’t go away. Compulsions are behaviours like washing, cleaning or ordering things in a certain way. Over 90% of people with clinical OCD have both obsessions and compulsions, with 25% to 50% reporting multiple obsessions. Although many people who suffer from OCD are aware that their obsessions and compulsions don’t make sense, they still can’t control them. While we often associate OCD with people who wash their hands constantly, are germ phobic or refuse to shake hands, sadly, people with OCD are frequently the butt-end of jokes. We know that OCD is anything but funny; in fact, it is often a debilitating mental illness that severely affects a person’s ability to enjoy life.

Additionally, OCD often interferes with work and negatively impacts relationships. In severe cases, obsessive thoughts and repetitive, compulsive rituals can consume the entire day, making it difficult to hold down a job or maintain personal relationships.

What causes OCD?

The cause of OCD has not been established. Studies have suggested that the cause may be genetic, biological and/or psychological, but as yet there is nothing definitive.

Some signs of OCD

In the workplace, you may notice:

  • Excessive hand washing and/or hand wringing
  • Refusal to shake hands
  • Everything on their desk has to be precisely arranged
  • May become visibly upset if you touch or move any of their things
  • Need to check and recheck their work
  • Late to meetings because of their need to “prepare” again and again
  • Appear to be lost in thought because of their obsessions

How best to support an employee with OCD

There are several effective ways to support an employee with OCD. An EAP is an excellent resource for a person suffering from OCD. You can also gently encourage your employee to seek medical help as medication and therapy can benefit the OCD sufferer. There are also modifications and accommodations that you can make to better support them at your organization:

  • Allow telecommuting
  • Issue deadlines as much in advance as possible
  • Try not to put the person in situations where frequent handshaking is expected
  • Make hand sanitizer readily available
  • Avoid disturbing the setup on the employee’s desk
  • Don’t ask to borrow their office supplies or equipment
  • If possible, avoid putting the employee in stressful situations as stress is a major trigger of OCD

Do you have a process in place to accommodate employees suffering from OCD or other forms of mental illness? If not, a referral to the EAP and the willingness to make modifications in the workplace will go a long way to setting up employees for success and ensuring that your employees are feeling supported by their employer.


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Spotlight on Mental Illness: Social Anxiety in the Workplace

ASP Aug 1Social anxiety disorder is also referred to as social phobia. And it’s much more common than you’d think. Social anxiety disorder is the third largest mental health problem in the world today according to the Social Anxiety Association. Although employees may feel that they can hide social anxiety disorder in their personal lives, it’s virtually impossible to do the same in the workplace. Let’s discuss what social anxiety disorder is, how you can detect if an employee is suffering from it and what, as an employer, you can do about it.

What is social anxiety disorder?

Social anxiety disorder is the intense fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and embarrassed by others. This leads to avoiding social situations that involve interaction with other people at all costs. As employers I’m sure you’ve seen how social anxiety disorder can have a negative impact on work performance and personal relationships. As a result social anxiety disorder can also significantly contribute to lost productivity. The good news is that social anxiety disorder is very treatable.

How can you recognize if an employee is suffering from social anxiety disorder?

People suffering from social anxiety disorder may exhibit any or all of the following behaviours:

  • May be seen by others as being shy, quiet, withdrawn, unfriendly or aloof
  • Avoid meetings and social situations, speaking in public or even talking one-on-one
  • Difficulty meeting people in authority
  • Rarely make eye contact
  • Overwhelmed or upset easily
  • Find it hard to make decisions
  • Difficulty with time management and meeting reasonable deadlines
  • Uncomfortable being watched while doing something
  • Fear of taking on new challenges or learning new things
  • Try too hard to be perfect
  • Experience physical symptoms – racing heart, blushing, excessive sweating, clammy hands, trembling, nausea, stammering or shaky voice

What can you do as an employer to help employees suffering with social anxiety disorder?

There are several things that you can do to help your employees deal with the day-to-day stressors in the workplace:

  • Be open and accepting about mental health issues to reduce the stigma
  • Show concern
  • Improve mental health literacy in your organization
  • Train supervisors and managers to recognize the symptoms of social anxiety disorder
  • Make available and promote the benefits of an EAP program
  • Encourage employees to seek care when they need it
  • Ask your employee if they need additional support and what that support might look like
  • Let your employee know what support services are available
  • Accommodate your employee by finding the right type of work to match their comfort level
  • Provide modified workspaces, flexible schedules or permission to take breaks when needed

Do you have a program in place to help employees with social anxiety disorder? It’s important to build a culture that demonstrates to all employees that they are cared for and valued. A supportive workplace inspires employees to feel loyal, dedicated and motivated which benefits the entire company.


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International Self-Care Day is July 24th: How to Make Time for Self-Care with a Busy Schedule

Pilates exerciseJuly 24th is International Self-Care Day. It’s the perfect time for all of us to pause and remember just how important self-care is. Although it may seem impossible to take time out of our busy days, it’s important for employers to encourage employees to fit self-care into their schedules. Work-life initiatives can really make a big difference in the workplace. According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian worker is away from work for the equivalent of almost two weeks in a year. Casual absences (not requiring a doctor’s note) account for 80% of lost days for most businesses. Encouraging and promoting a healthy work-life balance is not only good for your employees, it’s good for business.

What is International Self-Care Day?
The International Self-Care Day (ISD) worldwide campaign objective is to celebrate the importance of self-care and to encourage the general public to practice responsible self-care. Every year ISD is observed on July 24 to serve as a reminder that the benefits of self-care are lifelong, experienced 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What is self-care?
The International Self-Care Foundation has developed a framework called Seven Pillars of Self-Care.

Pillar 1 – Health Literacy: It’s important to learn about our health so that we can make informed decisions on what we need for self-care.

Pillar 2 – Self-Awareness of Physical and Mental Condition: We need to be self-aware about the state of our physical and mental health. The best way to do this is to regularly visit your doctor or health practitioner and be honest about how you’re feeling physically and mentally.

Pillar 3 – Physical Activities: Regular physical activity is vitally important for self-care. It doesn’t have to involve intense or extreme activities. Walking, cycling, yoga, swimming… they can all significantly improve your health, fitness and mood.

Pillar 4 – Healthy Eating: Eating a nutritious, balanced diet is always essential. Take the time to eat; eat and chew slowly.

Pillar 5-Risk Avoidance or Mitigation: A few important tips are – avoid smoking, limit alcohol intake and use sunscreen daily. Take Vitamin D, especially for us Canadians who experience less sunshine and relatively short summers than those living closer to the equator.

Pillar 6- Good Hygiene: While most of us practice good hygiene, it’s still important to note that washing your hands well and often is one of the most important things we can do.

Pillar 7-Rational and Responsible Use of Products, Services, Diagnostics and Medicines:  Avail yourself of medical help when necessary. If you’ve been prescribed medication, take it as directed. If alternative medicine is your thing, use it.

Why self-care is so important for employees?

  • Boosts morale
  • Increases productivity
  • Reduces absenteeism
  • Improves mental and physical health
  • Decreases stress

Tips on how employers can encourage employees to make time for self-care

  • Help employees set and maintain personal boundaries
  • Help your employees set achievable goals
  • If you schedule meetings during the lunch hour, provide a healthy meal
  • Encourage employees to take intermittent self-care breaks – a walk at lunch time, a social break with a co-worker
  • Promote outside-of-work activities
  • Allow for flexible schedules

Remember, if you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be able to give of yourself to others.

July 24th is right around the corner. Is your company promoting self-care in your workplace? Now’s a great time to begin a self-care initiative.