Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Exam Season: 3 Tips to Lower Your Body’s Stress Level

k-67-dsc045553442545-fon_1-id-68958-jpegAs I’m sure you’re all aware, exam season has commenced. I know from experience that in times of high stress and when exam dates loom, it’s tempting to forgo sleep and easy to forget to eat or hydrate. These are very unhealthy means of studying, and they only add to your stress.

To avoid high stress levels or illness this exam season, I would like to provide you with three tips to take care of your body and reduce your stress level when preparing for exams:

  1. Eat and Drink
    It’s one thing to eat and drink healthily on a regular basis, but during exam season, some students remain so focused on their studies that they forget to eat or drink something at all! Understandably, your focus is your studies, but I implore you to stay hydrated and fed.

    During periods of high stress, I sometimes set hourly alarms on my phone to remind myself to drink water. This may seem silly, but it’s easy to get lost in your head, especially while studying, and ignore what your body needs.

    As for what you eat, it may seem like you don’t have time to cook. You probably don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on take out over the next couple weeks, but you need to eat something. Before exam season is in full swing, pick up a few key items at the grocery store for simple meals, like cereal, salad, and sandwiches. Be sure you are incorporating some nutritious foods such as vegetables and protein. And always keep snacks in your bag, like apples or granola bars, in case you accidently skip a meal.

  2. Exercise
    I’m sure you’ve heard that exercise releases delightful hormones called endorphins, which trigger positive feelings to reduce stress and pain. Luckily, a simple 10-minute walk could be enough to produce several hours of stress relief.

    If you’re an extrovert and hours of secluded studying is worsening your stress, attend a group exercise lesson at your campus or preferred gym. Not only will you be getting exercise, but you’ll also benefit from the additional aspect of socialization, giving you a much-needed break between study sessions.

  3. Rest
    This might be the most difficult tip to follow, since it’s sort of a catch-22. Six to eight hours for a good night’s rest is a lot of time, but the longer you go without sleep in order to study the less you are likely to retain the information. Research shows that recalling information from one day to the next is easier after a night of sleep. However difficult it may be to rationalize, it is important to find a balance between study time and sleep time. You don’t want all of your efforts to be wasted by falling asleep during an exam.

It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this; all of your fellow students are going through the exact same crazy time. Reach out to your friends and help each other stay sane and healthy during this and future exam seasons. If you require more structured support, reach out to a school counsellor or your Student Assistance Program to assist you with a study plan or exam accommodations. Good luck!

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“I’ve Graduated – Now What?” Tips on Dealing with the Graduation Blues

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 12.38.54 PMStressful exams, excessive coffee, possible home sickness and hefty loans – post-secondary education has been quite the ride for the last few years, but hopefully has, in theory, provided you with the exciting opportunities everyone says awaits you. Many students across the globe expect to obtain a respectable, decent-paying job in their field right after graduation, but is this expectation realistic nowadays?

Undoubtedly, many soon-to-be grads are concerned about what life looks like after graduation. Remember all that support when you left high school to transition to university or college? Those transition supports aren’t so readily available and obvious now that we’re getting ready to graduate from post-secondary school. These are stressful times, with many questioning where you will live (moving back in with parents? ) and how soon can you find a career-focused job (that you like!) to pay off your student loans…and this stress can take a toll on your mental health and the ability to cope.

I’ve been working with students for several years now and have outlined below some tips to help you avoid getting the graduation blues and better enjoy the next phase in your journey:

Talk It Out – Ask your school counselling centre for some referrals to affordable supports in your community. We all need some help as we head into this new world of wonders, and there are a variety of talk therapy and behavioural counselling options out there – change is hard, but asking for help doesn’t need to be. Good friends and family members, particularly ones who have “been there”, can be great supports as well. Discussing options for your future gets things out of your head and become actionable through steps towards your goals.

Freedom is Real – Make a plan for doing something you enjoy, and allow yourself to get excited about it. After all the pressure you’ve been under, give yourself time to adjust, whether it be a trip, shopping, or visiting your friends, get busy doing nothing. Allow yourself some time to just be free and relax, and don’t just sit around dwelling on what is not getting done right away.

Do the Right Thing – So what’s the next step? Sure, it’s easy to just enroll in the Master’s program to put off leaving your safe hub, or taking an internship that pays less than nothing to get some “practical” experience. Stop putting off the inevitable, and just be true to yourself about what job you accept or whether the extra education is worth the extra debt. This is the time to check out what’s out there and not grab the easiest thing. Fear of drifting around is scary, but grabbing the first available option can exacerbate your mental health issues if it’s not the right one, so stick to your guns.

This Is Where You’re At – Accepting that university or college is coming to an end, and you don’t know what comes next, not really, is ok. Typically we spend about 16 straight years in schooling being told to some degree what we can and cannot do, so it’s no wonder we come out not knowing exactly what we are supposed to do. Accept that this is where you are. The power of now. This is a normal stage that most of us go through so allow yourself to readjust and focus on what you need to do for your next journey in the big open world.

With graduation coming up – how are you feeling? Do you have a support system in place for post-graduation? I look forward to hearing from you!


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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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Adderall: When a Study Hack Becomes a Drug Problem

studyI recently wrote a blog about the Fentanyl crisis affecting Canadians today. This week, I want to discuss another drug crisis impacting Canadian youth: Adderall abuse. Adderall is a prescription drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children and adults, but the drug has gained popularity among post-secondary students who use the medication as a “study drug”. When used for its intended purposes, Adderall helps increase one’s ability to focus. When people who do not suffer from ADHD use the drug, they experience laser-sharp concentration, making it a popular study tool for stressed students. According to the American Journal of College Health, 76% of students will be offered the prescription drug throughout their four years of university, and about 30% will accept it.

Back when I was in university, Adderall was not used as a study drug, and if it was, it definitely wasn’t discussed as openly as it is today. When we began offering our SAP services, I was shocked to learn just how prevalent the use of Adderall is on many campuses today. As some schools are in the middle of midterms, and others are preparing for final projects and exams, I thought I would write this blog to educate students on the dangers of this quick fix study trick.

People who have used the drug for studying purposes report feeling focused and motivated to complete their work. Spending hours in the library studying for an exam can be mind numbing, but because Adderall was designed to lengthen your attention span, students find it easier to get through their workload.

Adderall is one of the most addictive prescription drugs on the market. When a student uses it and receives a great mark on a paper or exam, it can be difficult not to resort back to the method that helped them achieve it. A lot of students carry the mantra, “I’ll just use it this once to get through this tough exam period”, but if a student is relying on Adderall for their brain power, what’s to stop them from using it in the working world as well?

Adderall can affect your body in a number of ways. Short–term, students who take Adderall experience feelings of nervousness, nausea and agitation. Since the drug maintains your focus, it also reduces your appetite. Consequently, students often miss important meals after taking the drug. Abuse of the drug has been linked to eating disorders and other associated mental health issues.

After taking excessive amounts of Adderall over a period of time, your body begins to depend on it, just like any other drug. Suddenly it can be difficult to accomplish daily tasks without popping a few pills first. As mentioned in my previous blog about Fentanyl, people often begin abusing one drug and move on to more powerful substances to get a more intensified high. Last year, the Toronto Star published an article discussing the link between Adderall use and suicide.

So how is it so easy for students to get their hands on this drug? It is estimated that only 1 in 20 children in Canada have ADHD, but that doesn’t stop students desperate to improve their grades. A quick Google search can expose hundreds of articles with titles like, “How to trick your doctor into prescribing you Adderall”. Faking symptoms of ADHD can lead doctors to a misdiagnosis, and students can walk away with a powerful prescription. Students who have received prescriptions are known to sell the drug to their peers for up to $25 a pill.

Have you or a loved one recently started using Adderall to combat school stress? Here are my tips on how you can deal with the problem now:

  1. Get organized without the use of prescription medication. Talk to your teachers if you are feeling stressed, and surround yourself with positive people who want to help you succeed.
  2. If you are experiencing physical symptoms from Adderall use, talk to a medical professional. Talking about drug use can be difficult, but living with an addiction is harder.
  3. Talk to your campus mental health or SAP provider for assistance on managing drug use and stress levels. They have the tools to assist you through an Adderall dependency, or managing the challenges of schoolwork.

There is no denying that post-secondary life is difficult. I remember staying up late to finish papers and stressing over exams for hours, I was always a crammer. While taking Adderall might seem like a short-term solution to your stress, working hard to get a good grade is a lot more rewarding.


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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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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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Advice for Parents of New University and College Students

Moving to schoolAs we embark on the beginning of another school year, the majority of the focus is rightfully on the university and college students who are transitioning into a whole new phase of life as they enter post-secondary education. As September approached, I saw a great deal of literature that offered advice to the students about what to expect from their first hours, days, and weeks at school. I did not, however, see very much advice for the just as large population of parents of these new first-year students.

As a mental health professional and parent, I’ve collected a few nuggets of wisdom when it comes to supporting your child and new student in this transition.

Stay organized to avoid stress: Nothing is worse than being emotionally fragile and disorganized. Make sure you have the correct information and paperwork, and that you have made your to-do lists and shopping lists. This will help you feel prepared and armed to handle the exhaustive and emotional process of moving in your child and saying goodbye.

Encourage your child to try everything: The first couple of days at university and college are designed to appeal to a variety of needs and personalities that help students orient themselves with their new surroundings. While your child may not want to throw themselves into new activities or get-to-know-you games, encourage him or her to try everything that is offered in these first days so that they stay busy and occupied.

Know that homesickness and discomfort are normal: Remind your child that every student feels the same way: new, awkward, and uncomfortable, and this is completely normal! If your child calls you feeling homesick and sad, avoid rushing in to rescue them from these feelings, because they are an important part of acclimatizing to their new environment and learning valuable coping skills.

Make yourself aware of the resources: Your child has a lot on their mind when they arrive to school. They are trying to feel comfortable in their new space, trying to meet people and get oriented in their new home. It wouldn’t hurt for you to familiarize yourself with the resources available on campus and within the school’s housing and residence structure. This way, if and when you see your child struggling or uncomfortable, you can make recommendations and direct them to help.

Be prepared for them to make mistakes: As you probably know from your own experience as a young adult, your child is not perfect. They will make mistakes this year, and these mistakes will help them learn and grow into a better person. While you may be disappointed in certain decisions they make, be there for them and work through it together.

Try not to smother them: This time in your child’s life is crucial to their development into a self-sufficient and responsible young adult. Give them the space they need to discover who they truly are and what makes them happy.

The first few weeks of this transition will be hard for both you and your child, but this is what you’ve worked so hard for – a child who is capable and responsible. Trust that they can take on the world, and know that even though you may not always be physically with them or actively guiding them, you are still the biggest influence in their life.

Remember that everyone is different, and no two parents will handle the situation the same. That being said, how are you managing during the first days of the transition? Share your experience with me below.