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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Can You Effect Change in 2018 without Resolutions?

shutterstock_753302986Ah, it’s January of a new year, a time most people reflect on the past year – what worked, what didn’t and what should have been done. Then we see our co-workers and our friends and family, and we are often asked “So what are YOUR New Year’s resolutions?” The common responses tend to be health-related, such as losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising regularly, or financial, such as debt reduction and better money management. But when we reflect, we can see why last year’s resolutions weren’t fulfilled, and that’s due to the fact that they are just that – resolutions. Resolutions have been shown to have been actualized less than 10% of the time.

So is it possible to have the best intentions for 2018 without having actual resolutions? Absolutely. Let me share with you some ways you can effect positive change in your life by simply adjusting the way you perceive those intentions.

Turning a Plan into Action – The readiness to change, or how prepared a person is to enter the action stage of changing their behaviour, has been found to be the single best predictor of New Year’s resolution success, with those who have intention to be 10 times more likely to succeed than adults who were not yet ready to put plans into action.

Unrealistic Goals and Expectations – People often make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, but if they aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, then success will be difficult to achieve. Set only one resolution to focus on, and be specific. Setting short-term goals which are attainable and realistic, such as “I am going to lose 2 lbs. per week for the next 10 weeks” vs. “I am going to lose 20 lbs. starting now”, have been found to be more effective in the long term. With systems in place that reward new behaviours, while avoiding high-risk situations that allow for a step-back, it can be easier to stay on track.

Be Accountable to Someone – Have a buddy, someone close to you, to cheer you on but also to whom you have to report to at set intervals and maintain this accountability. This person can remind you of your success achieved thus far, and help you celebrate along the way, not just at the end.

Changing the Way You Think – By focusing your thinking on creating new behaviours and thought patterns, you will be able to change your habits. This involves creating new neural pathways in your brain that set your habitual thoughts to the “new standard”, and become your default when faced with new situations, like when you are faced with the dessert menu and others are ordering from it. Your new way of thinking becomes your way of creating positive habits.

Be Present and Mindful – When you focus on the moment, and not what happened in the past or worry about the future, you can be mindful of our feelings and think of what we can do TODAY to achieve your goal. In fact, if you can visualize having already attained your goal, this will help you create readiness and intention to pursue it.

How will you make changes in your life this year? Have you found success with these tips? I look forward to hearing from you!


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Maintaining Strong Mental Health During the Holidays

gift-2870161_1920As 2017 comes to an end, we begin to reflect on our year and prepare for the holidays. No doubt you’ve heard the festive music and seen the bright decorations by now. And if you’ve seen any advertisements, they probably feature smiling faces and holiday joy. But with so much cheer all around, this time of year can be a serious strain on one’s mental health. With personal and professional social events to plan and attend, the holidays can intensify feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. That’s why I want to discuss some common causes of stress and anxiety this holiday season, and share tips on how to minimize the negative effects that may result.

Be Careful Not To Take On Too Much

One of the most challenging aspects of the holidays is the pressure to commit significant amounts of money and time. Between gift giving and spending time with family and friends, sometimes it can feel like you’ve bit off more than you can chew. As such, it’s important to commit to both a budget and a schedule this holiday season. By planning a budget in advance and sticking to it, you can avoid unnecessary expenses that will get you into financial trouble.

Furthermore, creating a schedule will ensure that you find the perfect balance between attending holiday events and having personal time for rest and relaxation. Also, don’t feel bad if you can’t attend every party or event you’ve been invited to! People are generally understanding, and they’re likely in the exact same boat as you.

Enjoy the Time You Spend With Family

The holidays offer quality time to spend with family while many have time off from work or school. In certain cases, spending the holidays with family can bring feelings of tension, stress, and sadness. For some families, there may be specific personalities or past differences that could lead to conflict between family members. If this rings true for you, it can be helpful to set boundaries. Try to stay away from certain topics or situations that could become heated, and don’t be afraid to speak up or excuse yourself from a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable.

For other families, the holidays can act as an unfortunate reminder of the loss of a loved one. While the holiday season may be a difficult time, it also offers the opportunity to create new traditions, especially those that honour a loved one and incorporate their interests.

Don’t Forget Your Healthy Habits

Everyone has their own traditions of how they spend the holidays, but there’s usually a couple of activities we indulge in more than at any other time of the year: food and drink, and sometimes, lots of both. While I’m hardly one to take issue with some of the tasty holiday dishes or festive beverages at this time of year, the indulgence can create feelings of guilt and stress.

Try to remember a few healthy habits. For one, eat a healthy snack right before you go to a holiday event. This trick will ensure that you fit in a healthy option, but will also lessen your hunger and thus your urge to indulge in sweets! Pace yourself when it comes to participating in alcohol consumption. Remember that alcohol numbs the senses, as it is a depressant. And of course, I would be remiss not to remind you to always have a designated driver when you’ve been drinking alcohol. Additionally, incorporate some physical activity on your days off. Winter sports or even a walk outside are great forms of exercise to balance out some of the hearty meals you’ll be eating.

While stress and anxiety may feel inevitable during this time of year, it’s important to remember the happiness that comes with it as well. There’s bound to be positive moments in exchanging gifts, enjoying a delicious meal, and spending time with family and friends that you haven’t seen in a while. So if you keep these positives in mind, and follow the aforementioned tips to stay healthy this season, you’ll be sure to enjoy the holiday cheer this December. Happy Holidays!


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Succeeding through the next few weeks at school

k-159-chim-5169As the school semester comes to an end, final exam preparations will soon begin for many students. This usually involves long days at the library, and perhaps, some coffee to keep you alert. The time and focus that academic success entails, combined with the intense pressure students feel in order to succeed, can lead to stress and exhaustion.

If you’re a student of an Ontario college, you may be experiencing stress caused by a different circumstance: the faculty strike you’ve just experienced. No matter what type of post-secondary educational institution you study at, this time of year can no doubt have an impact on your mental health. For this reason, I have outlined some tips to assist you prepare for the next few weeks before winter break.

For all students, whether you are preparing for final exams, or you have been affected by the Ontario college strike, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Prioritize your diet and sleep schedule. It’s always important to remember that eating healthy meals and getting plenty of sleep are proven to improve one’s mental health. During your studying, proper diet and sleep will ensure that you are alert and attentive, and this will improve the quality of your studying, mood, and hopefully your grades!
  • Go out less, but still see your friends. While it’s best to decrease the amount of social events you go to, it’s still important to spend time with friends and family. Making time for others will serve as a distraction, and a good change of pace. Even if it’s just eating a meal or walking home together, your friends will balance out the stress of exams, and really help you improve your mood.
  • Be aware of resources and help on campus. At almost every campus, there are counsellors, wellness centres, and hotlines to call. If you feel low or vulnerable, it’s important to be heard, and these resources are specifically meant for students. Lastly, remember that your grades don’t define your worth, but your mental health should always be valued.

Ultimately, the exam period before winter break will be manageable and less stressful if you stick with good habits, and reach out to friends and support when needed. You’ll find that help is always available, and if combined with hard work, you’re sure to do well on your exams. Good luck!


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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.