Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Get Outside! Ecotherapy Can Benefit Your Mental Health

With Earth Day coming up on April 22nd, let’s celebrate by making a commitment to reconnect with nature and reap the benefits.

Urbanization has caused our disconnection with nature

More than 50% of the world’s populations now live in urban settings and we’re contending with sensory overload on a daily basis. In order to keep up with our lifestyles and work demands, many of us are sleep-deprived, fighting traffic or overcrowded transit systems, and eating at our desks. We spend little to no time outdoors in green spaces. As a result, numerous studies have shown that urban dwellers are at a much higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people who live in more rural settings.

Some countries are actively using ecotherapy (also known as natural therapy or green therapy) to combat the effects of urbanization. These programs encourage interacting with nature and participating in outdoor activities, to help heal and nurture the mind and body. There are three therapeutic “healing forests” in South Korea (with 34 more planned by 2017). In Sweden, virtual nature spaces are prescribed for workers suffering from stress.

Fresh air is good for you

We all know about the benefits of physical exercise, but just being in nature can improve your mental outlook. You don’t have to bike or run; you can sit on a park bench, go for a stroll, or sit on a patio to reap the benefits. And you don’t have to make a major time commitment. You can benefit significantly from spending just 15 minutes a day in nature.

How spending time in nature can improve your mental health

There are many benefits to connecting with nature:

  • Mood elevation
  • Restored mental energy
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower stress levels
  • Increased alertness
  • Better concentration
  • Improved short-term memory
  • Better sleep
  • Increase in Vitamin D

Small changes can make a big difference

As an employer, you can help your employees reconnect with nature. With pleasant weather upon us this spring, encourage your employees to take their lunch breaks outside or at least go for a walk around the block. If your office building has outdoor spaces, put out some picnic tables. Organize group outdoor activities in the summer months – a weekly softball or Frisbee game over the lunch hour or after work, potluck lunch at the local park with a badminton net and three-legged races, golf tournaments, or a harbour cruise. These activities will boost morale and improve mental health, which is beneficial for your employees’ overall health.

What are you doing to help your employees reconnect with nature?


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Good Mood Food: How to Eat Your Way to Better Mental Health

There’s no doubt about it – life at College and University can be tough. With exams to study for, papers to finish, and deadlines to meet, it’s far too easy to put healthy eating on the backburner. This is unfortunate, as our diet has a huge impact on our happiness levels. Considering the rising rate of mental health issues on school campuses, it’s becoming more important than ever for students to focus on eating healthy.

In celebration of National Nutrition Month this March, I’ve outlined 4 simple ways that you can boost your mood through the foods you eat.

Add More Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What’s your go-to snack that gets you through all those late night study sessions? If you’re like many students, chances are it’s one that’s packed with trans and saturated fats.

The average North American diet is much higher in trans and saturated fats and is lacking in the essential omega-3 fatty acids. This is troubling, as studies have shown that high levels of these fats can actually lead to depression. The good news is, research tells us that omega-3 fatty acids have a mood-stabilizing effect that can in fact reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

How can you add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet? Great options include oily fish such as salmon, trout, and anchovies. If fish isn’t quite your cup of tea, try leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.

Choose Foods High in Antioxidants

I have some great news for you chocolate lovers: eating foods that are high in antioxidants is a great way to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing.

Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene help minimize molecules in the body known as “free radicals”. Free radicals are detrimental to our mental health, and they are one of the leading causes of major depression. The silver lining? It has been proven that antioxidants help to fight these molecules, reducing symptoms of depression and improving our overall mental health.

On top of dark chocolate, foods that are rich in these mood-boosting antioxidants include tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, artichoke, and kidney beans.

Increase your Vitamin B12 Intake

How many nights have you stayed up late studying only to find yourself feeling a little bit down the next day?

I like to think of vitamin B12 as a “miracle” vitamin when it comes to perking up and improving your mood.

Research has found that those who have vitamin B12 deficiencies have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and irritability. Vitamin B12 reduces these feelings by producing a chemical called ‘dopamine’ in the body. Dopamine is an essential chemical that helps to regulate our emotional response, boost our happiness levels, and improve our mood altogether.

To add more vitamin B12 to your diet, try eating more fish, beef, eggs, cheese, and milk.

Go for the Good Bacteria

Did you know that not all bacteria are bad bacteria? It’s true – eating foods that are high in ‘probiotic’ bacteria is a great way to improve your mental health.

Studies have confirmed that probiotics reduce inflammation as well as increase serotonin production within the body. This is great for your mental health, as inflammation causes higher levels of depression and stress, while serotonin helps boost your happiness levels. By consuming probiotics, you are effectively giving your body a natural antidepressant.

If you’re looking to add more depression-fighting probiotics to your diet, try making yogurt your snack of choice.

As a post-grad many, many, many years ago, I understand how busy your days on campus can get. It’s often much easier to choose quick, “on-the-go” snacks than to make a wholesome, nutritious meal. But if improving your mental health and wellbeing is something you value, consider taking that extra time. You’ll feel a whole lot better about it – inside and out.

To learn more about how you can improve your mental health through your diet, check out our Online and Telephonic Nutritional Service through your Student or Employee Assistance Program.


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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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#MentalHealth

Blue Monday, which occurs on the 3rd Monday of January, is often publicized online and in the news as the most depressing day of the year. While scientific evidence has proven this is not true, this term continues to trend on social media every January and contributes to the conversation around mental health awareness. January is also home to Bell Media’s popular mental health awareness campaign #BellLetsTalk, where Bell contributes proceeds from every #BellLetsTalk hashtag used in text messages or on social media on that day to support mental health organizations.

With all of these social media initiatives contributing to the conversation around mental health, I am amazed at how far we have come. There was a time when people were encouraged to hide their mental illness from the world, due to stigma and shame. Now, there are hundreds of online support communities that want people to share their mental health stories and show them they are not alone. Social media has truly changed the way we look at mental health.

In 2018, it is expected that 20 million Canadians will have at least one social media account to connect with the world around them, share news, and stay in touch with friends. Social media also provides us with a sense of community. People suffering with their mental health often describe being stigmatized by their illness and have trouble speaking out about it at school or work. The mental health community on social media has given people an opportunity to contribute to mental health awareness by giving them a voice. People can now search a hashtag like, #TalkAboutIt on Twitter or search mental heath support groups on Facebook and find like-minded individuals who are experiencing the same things they are. The ability to connect with others through social media is an incredible thing.

Regular people dealing with mental health challenges aren’t the only ones speaking up. Social media gives us access to celebrities and influencers like never before. It should come as no surprise that celebrities, just like us, suffer from mental health issues or know some who does. A lot of popular celebrities have come forward via social media in recent years to speak about their mental health and support others who are dealing with mental health challenges of their own. Well-known public figures such as Carrie Fisher, Lady Gaga and Ryan Reynolds have used their social platforms to help reduce the stigma around mental illness. Seeing this kind of support and acceptance from a huge celebrity can truly make a difference to someone who is dealing with their own mental health challenges.

Mental health organizations are also now using social media to help them implement campaigns around mental health awareness. Organizations like CAMH and The Canadian Mental Health Association have utilized social media to show followers what they’re working on and the impact their organization has on mental health. People dealing with mental health issues are now a lot more aware of the services that these organizations provide, and have the ability to connect with them more efficiently than ever before.

That being said, I know there is a dark side to social media use as well. Issues like cyber bullying continue to plague these social networks, and can end up creating mental health challenges instead of assisting them. That’s why I think it’s so important to practice the kinds of values that are promoted on these trending days, like acceptance and understanding, year round.

With 30 years of experience in the mental health field, seeing the outpour of support that comes through on social media on days like #BellLetsTalk or #WorldMentalHealthDay is amazing. While I don’t love every aspect of social media, I do love the mental health community that has emerged as a result of it.


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Better Mental Health? Sign Me Up!

volunteer-1550327_960_720There’s no doubt about it: the holidays can be stressful. As we make time for friends and family, parties and gift exchanges, the entire season can be hectic. The rush to purchase presents for our loved ones can feel almost like a chore as opposed to an exciting activity. Depression rates during the holiday season are also high. Students are dealing with the pressures of exams before heading home, and adults dealing with difficult family or relationship problems or the loss of a loved one can dread this time of year when we are supposed to be the most joyful. So how can we bring back the magic of the holiday season?

As I was discussing this issue with a colleague recently, he explained that after years of stress around the holidays, his family began volunteering at a soup kitchen every holiday season. He told me, “It really puts things into perspective. As I stress about finding the perfect present for my wife, there are people out there who worry about having enough food to feed their families everyday.” Volunteering his time to help the less fortunate during the holidays helped him appreciate all the blessings he had been taking for granted.

Not only does volunteering provide a sense of gratitude, it also has benefits for your overall mental health. A 2013 Harvard Medical School publication outlined the mental health benefits of volunteering your time to help others in need. The article states, “volunteering helps people who donate their time feel more socially connected, thus warding off loneliness and depression.” Around this time of year when these types of emotions may be magnified, volunteering can be even more beneficial.

Volunteering can add meaning to our lives. We live our lives looking for happiness in a vast world of billions of inhabitants, often feeling lonely, sad, and insignificant when we can’t find it. We are often misguided when we pursue material possessions we think will bring us happiness. Getting involved in activities that have purpose, that will make a difference – maybe to just one person, can add meaning to our lives. We all want to make a difference in our lives and this is what volunteering can achieve.

So how can you get involved this holiday season? From delivering gifts to the less fortunate to assisting at a homeless shelter, there are hundreds of ways you can volunteer. For example, click here to visit the Food Banks Canada website and see how you can help hungry Canadians this holiday season.

While the holiday season is difficult for a lot of people, giving back and volunteering your time to the less fortunate will not only help improve the lives of others, but also benefit your own mental health in the process.

 


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Cancer in the Workplace: What can you do?

Over 204,440 Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in 2016.

This is an alarming statistic, one that we in the health care field together with employers need to address in order to support our workforce.

It’s safe to say cancer has a huge impact on all of us. This includes the families of those with a diagnosis, in addition to those directly affected. Unfortunately, people who have been diagnosed often feel uncomfortable disclosing their illness in the workplace, yet they desperately need our support.

Recently, my own company has had to deal with the impact of a cancer diagnosis in our office and being in the industry I’m in, we luckily had the tools and systems in place to address this. This is not the case for many organizations.

Although some employee assistance programs (EAPs) have introduced cancer support programs, we still have a long way to go to support this disease in the workplace.

As a business owner, HR manager, or supervisor, an employee is most likely to come to you with their cancer diagnosis to ask for support. I know how incredibly difficult this discussion can be, and to help you support a cancer diagnosis in the workplace, I have outlined a few tools below.

Be Prepared

A cancer diagnosis is often unexpected and inconvenient. Having a back-up long-term leave strategy in place can benefit the entire organization.

When an employee is dealing with an illness that interferes with their work, it can create tension in the office, especially if missed work impacts another employee. In the event of illness, a pre-determined strategy outlining the shift of responsibility among colleagues will allow an ill employee to feel more comfortable disclosing their diagnosis.

Have a Care Plan

There are details you need to know in order to set up a care plan that would be most beneficial to the employee. Your questions might include asking them if they know their treatment plan, if they will need to go on a work leave or long-term disability, and what accommodations you’ll need to make for them in the office. Your employee may not have all the details of their diagnosis yet, but asking the right questions will allow you to prepare an effective plan that will provide them the most support.

It’s also important to ask the employee how they would like to handle the situation in the workplace i.e. do they wish to disclose their diagnosis to other coworkers. Knowing who is aware of the situation will allow you to limit misinformation from circulating around the office and allow you to create a plan to deal with this situation.

Create a Safe Space

Dealing with cancer is both physically and emotionally exhausting, especially if someone is carrying on with his or her regular workload. One of the most important things you can do in your role is ensure the employee feels comfortable talking to you about their situation. Studies show that 40% of people impacted by cancer suffer from psychological distress. Ensure that you take the proper precautions to provide your employee with emotional support through this experience.

A cancer diagnosis impacts the entire workplace. Other employees might feel emotionally distressed by the news or may be experiencing a new, stressful workload as a result of another employee’s illness or absence. Encourage employees to reach out and talk to you about their feelings on the issue. By giving everyone an outlet for their pain, you allow them to release some of the stress brought on by this diagnosis.

 
Dealing with a cancer diagnosis in the workplace is incredibly difficult for all involved. Check in with The Canadian Cancer Society for helpful resources and ask your EAP provider if they have a cancer support service, or a program for your workforce to help those newly diagnosed as well as their partners and family members.

 


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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.