Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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How Creativity Improves Mental Health and Wellness

creativityMany students notice that the creativity they once had diminishes as they begin post-secondary education. It seems our schools of higher learning teach students to follow the rules, learn, memorize and repeat, conform, and measure their performance by taking standardized tests. Creativity is squeezed out as the pressure to excel on exams becomes the driving force. This, however, is counterintuitive to future demands in the workforce and the mental health and wellness of our students.

A 2010 IBM study, as reported in the Newsweek article “Creativity is the New Black”, reported that not only will creativity play a critical role in the future success of a corporation, but creativity is also regarded as a core competency for those in a leadership role. Unfortunately, education is killing the creativity of our students and leaving many of them anxiety-ridden and stressed out. What are we doing to improve the mental health and wellness of our students?

Tapping into your creativity for improved mental health and wellness

I wanted to share with you the many positive benefits creative expression has in maintaining wellness, whether through art, music, reading, writing, crafts, colouring, knitting, sewing, pottery, gardening, or dancing. Creative expression can:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increase positive emotions
  • Decrease depressive symptoms
  • Reduce distress and negative emotions
  • Boost the immune system
  • Increase self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment
  • Improve concentration and focus
  • Increase happiness

How does creativity improve mental health and wellness?

The average person has 60,000 thoughts per day and 95% of them are exactly the same, day in and day out (Cleveland Clinic). Immersing yourself in a creative activity produces an almost meditative state where your mind is so engrossed in what you’re doing that you temporarily forget all of your troubles and worries. The goal is no different from meditation, mindfulness, or yoga: in order to find calm, peace, and happiness in one’s life, the focus needs to be on one’s inner self (not external stimuli). This can be achieved only by becoming disciplined in an activity (eg. creativity) that will naturally lessen the importance and therefore impact of those thousands of thoughts we experience everyday. Neuroscientists have been studying many forms of creativity and finding that activities like cooking, drawing, photography, art, music, cake decorating and even doing crossword puzzles are beneficial to your health. When we are being creative, our brains release dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant. Creativity usually takes concentration and it can lead to the feeling of a natural high. Participating in creative activities may even help to alleviate depression.

The latest trend in stress relief is the adult colouring book

Adult colouring books are all the rage. They’re so popular now that there are even monthly colouring clubs. They’re inexpensive, fun, remind us of childhood, require no particular skill and they provide instant relaxation. They’ve become so mainstream that they can be purchased everywhere from Amazon to dollar stores.

Research shows that creative practices improve depression, anxiety and coping skills while enhancing quality of life and significantly reducing stress – all vital for mental health and wellness. And the beauty of creativity is that anyone can practice it – why not start today?

Are we doing enough to encourage our students to exercise their creativity?


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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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Campus life: Are you prepared?

As September draws closer, students all over Canada are preparing for their first year of university or college. Leaving home, new classes, new friends and new activities, it can be a lot to handle. While attending post-secondary school is an exciting chapter in anyone’s life, it can also be a transitional period for students experiencing it all for the first time.

 Student Life

Moving out on your own is exciting and full of opportunities, but at times it can be lonely. Clinical psychologist Dr. Christopher Thurber co-produced a study on homesickness in university students, and found that while all students miss something about home when they’re away, 5-10% of post-secondary students develop intense homesickness, which has an effect on behaviour.

Homesickness isn’t the only threat to first year students’ mental health. Students have to deal with a more demanding curriculum, adapt to new roommates, new classmates and learn how to take care of themselves for the first time ever. I remember the culture shock I experienced during my first few weeks of classes at York University, and that was back when university wasn’t as expensive, programs were less competitive, and moving away from home was not the thing to do!

Students who choose to live at home during post-secondary schooling are not exempt from mental health issues either. While staying home saves students and families from the financial burden of accommodation, it can be challenging to watch friends go off and start a new life while they remain at home with their parents who may still treat them as children.

Mental health issues in universities and colleges are not new. Why do you think Reading Week was introduced? It was created in the 1960s to allow students a reprieve from their demanding curriculum. Since then, mental health issues have grown exponentially. In 2011, Ryerson University’s centre for student development and counselling found that there was a 200% increase in students reporting a crisis situation. I was initially shocked by this statistic, but a Maclean’s report about mental health on campus provided some background on this issue. They found that more students are enrolling in school with previous mental health issues than ever before, and now these existing issues are being intensified.

We developed The Student Assistance Program (affectionately known as SAP) at Aspiria to augment what schools are currently providing to assist students seeking help with their mental heath on campus. Our goal is to help students thrive while at school and build resiliency skills to prepare them for graduation and the workforce

Attending college or university certainly has its challenges for students, but it’s important to remember that the experience is also exciting, rewarding, and will help shape who they become in life.

So how can we help students adjust to their 1st year of college or university ? Here are a number of tips for students on how to stay mentally well:

  • Parents should encourage their children to work summer jobs to create a sense of independence and responsibility they will carry with them to school.
  • If students are moving away for school, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the campus prior to starting classes. This will allow for less of a culture shock when school begins.
  • Join clubs and social groups. Clubs are a great way to meet friends and people who have similar interests. International students can find other students who have recently moved to their campus .
  • Seek help with the school’s counsellors or find out if a SAP is offered. These programs are in place to help students address their mental health issues and are always accessible.

 

1st year on campus can be a difficult adjustment for students. What additional strategies can you think of that can make the transition to campus life easier for students?


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It Was Going So Well…Until…

picAs business owners and managers of people, we are responsible for the safety and security of our employees, enabling them to become as productive as possible. But no matter how much we think we are prepared to manage our workday in a safe environment, no organization is immune to a critical incident. How can you possibly prepare for the unpredictable, no matter how prepared we think we are for such a sudden disruption? And what if that critical incident involves one of your key personnel? How will this affect the management of your organization?

You may or may not know that help is available through your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or Student Assistance Program (SAP).

As the owner of a company focused on providing health solutions that empower organizations and their people, I have years of expertise dealing with employers in organizational crisis situations. Below I have outlined a few case studies that showcase the breadth and depth of crisis intervention available for organizations to demonstrate the value of implementing a plan to prepare for the unpredictable.

One such incident involved a fire truck, which was en route to an emergency during whiteout conditions when a car crashed into the fire engine. The driver of the car was taken to hospital. The EAP was contacted by the organization, who immediately assessed the incident and rapidly dispatched their trauma team to the site of the tragic accident. Telephone consultation with management was immediately provided. Onsite debriefing intervention was quickly provided for staff that were on the truck at the time of the incident and for others who were indirectly involved (such as the dispatch personnel). Onsite debriefing was given to the fire department staff as a group as well.

Recently, at a post-secondary educational institution, a student was found deceased in their dorm room by their roommate. This traumatic event was one where the school contacted the trauma response service through their SAP. An immediate consultation was provided to student leadership reps and onsite trauma interventions were arranged over a period of 3 days to support students and staff with group and individual debriefings. Counselling services were also extended to the family of the deceased as well.

Another crisis situation where an organization benefited from their EAP’s trauma response program occurred when an employee’s son (known to employees of the company) jumped off a bridge to his death. When the trauma service was contacted, immediate consultation and follow-up was provided to management and an onsite debriefing was given to staff as a group and individually to staff members. The Clinical Response Centre was available to all employees of the organization for ongoing 24/7 support and extensive counselling was additionally provided to the employee, the employee’s spouse, and employee’s daughter.

When crisis strikes your organization, rest assured that there is help. Make sure you are prepared with a plan that accesses specialized defusing/debriefing interventions to provide support through all stages of a traumatic event. It is almost like an insurance policy – you never know when you may need it.