Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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World Suicide Prevention Day: Suicide in the Workplace

Suicide Prevention.jpgSuicide is an incredible tragedy, at any age or stage of life. In the past, I’ve discussed the growing rate of suicide among young adults – teenagers in particular. However, suicide can touch anyone and sadly, suicide rates in the workplace are on the rise. September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. I think it is so important that we bring suicide out of the shadows and discuss what part we can play in preventing suicide in the workplace.

Is suicide a problem in the Canadian workplace?

You may not realize how prevalent suicide is in our workplaces and the numbers of Canadians affected by suicide are staggering. According to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP):

  • It’s estimated that more than 3,000,000 Canadians have been affected by suicide
  • It’s likely that many people in every workplace have known someone who has died by suicide
  • Suicide is the leading cause of injury-related death in Canada
  • Working-aged men and women represent one of the highest risk groups for suicide
  • Men of working age die by suicide 3 to 4 times more often than women
  • Women are hospitalized for suicide-related behaviour 1.5 times more often than men
  • Although suicide deaths affect almost all age groups, middle-aged men (40 to 59) have the highest rates

Why is workplace suicide on the rise?

Many attribute the rise in workplace suicide to globalization which has really altered the way we work. Job insecurity, the shift to contract workers, unrealistic targets and deadlines, the pressure to produce profit and the abandonment of any work/life balance are all contributors.

What can you do to prevent suicide in your workplace?

There are many things that you can do to prevent suicide and promote mental health in your workplace:

  • Promote information and resources on suicide prevention, intervention and postvention (suicide bereavement)
  • Create a caring work environment
  • Reduce the stigma that accompanies suicide
  • Give your managers and employees the right tools to be able to identify and support employees at risk of suicide
  • Once at-risk behaviour is recognized, act on it – make sure your employee gets the appropriate help, work on reducing stress levels, perhaps flexible hours or working from home…
  • Ensure that employees that are bereaved by suicide get the help that they need
  • Encourage help-seeking behaviours
  • Establish a response protocol in the event of a suicide or suicide attempt at work

What are the benefits to becoming a suicide-safer workplace?

There are many great reasons for becoming a suicide-safer workplace:

  • The number 1 reason is that you could be saving lives!
  • Workplaces injuries and absences will be reduced
  • A happy and healthy workforce is more productive
  • A compassionate and psychologically safe workplace inspires employees to be their best

It’s important for every company to play their part in suicide prevention. Does your company have a suicide prevention program in place? You can make a difference.

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Robin Williams: Depression in the Spotlight

Robin-Williams-diedAlthough people suffer from depression everywhere and too many individuals decide to take their own lives as a result of their pain, mental illness will always get the spotlight when society loses a well-known figure to suicide.

While we probably don’t know him personally, we feel close to Robin Williams through his various movie and comedic roles. Whether you remember him best as Mork, the Genie, Mrs. Doutbfire, English teacher John Keating or Dr. Sean Maguire, Robin William’s warmth was always felt by his fans through the decades.

As the details of Robin William’s suicide surface, many have wondered how someone could bring so much joy to others around the world while quietly suffering from his own demons. Williams was believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder, an illness defined by its range of manic and depressive mood swings. It appears as though Williams had been battling an extended period of severe depression when he decided to take his own life.

What Robin Williams’ death most poignantly illustrates is that depression can overwhelm even successful, talented, wealthy and perceivably happy individuals. There is no common denominator or predictor of who can suffer depression, and everyone has a unique experience with the illness, where sometimes medications, treatments and coping skills are simply no match. For whatever reason, Williams felt that suicide was his only way to find relief from his suffering, and he is not alone in this feeling.

Can anything be learned from the terrible loss of this well-loved actor, as well the loss of so many whose names we don’t know and will never have the chance to meet?

For those who are suffering, perhaps it is the realization that, while your feelings of sadness are yours and are valid, you are not alone.

For those who know a loved one is suffering, we must learn to reach out, again and again and again, to show them how much they are loved.

Amongst the posts I’ve read over the past few days commemorating Robin Williams, nothing struck me as strongly as the following:

“If you feel isolated, I see you. If you wonder whether it all matters, I will help you find out. If you feel worthless, know that you are valued by me. If you feel the darkness closing in, there is always a little light. I will walk with you there.”


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Mental Health Coping Strategies You Can Try Today!

office exercise

If you cope with mental health issues in your life, you might be familiar with experiencing a stressful, anxiety-inducing or depressing episode during the workday. This episode can be compounded by discomfort because you may not want to show that you are upset while at work. With 1 in 5 Canadians suffering from some kind of mental health issue, it becomes vital for us to develop and hone coping strategies and skills that allow us to support ourselves through difficult moments if formal support is not available.

We all know that learning to manage stress and mental health is a life-long journey, but how can you help yourself when you experience an episode in the workplace?  The following are tangible strategies that can help you maintain a sense of calm and control of your mental health while at work.

Talk (or Write) it Out: If it is appropriate, talk with a trusted family member, colleague or friend about what you are currently experiencing. Releasing some of the pent-up anxiety or bad feelings brings relief to the immediate symptoms that can keep us from being productive. If you are not comfortable speaking to someone or prefer to write out your feelings, take a few minutes to do so. Take note of potential triggers, exactly what you’re feeling and how long the experience lasts. This can help you uncover patterns and predict stressful situations.

Accomplish something: If you are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of things on your plate, it may help you to accomplish something – even if it is unrelated or minor. For example, if you are worried about completing all the items on a task list for a big project, it may help you to clear your email inbox or complete a timeline of how you plan to tackle the work. Ensure that you channel this feeling of accomplishment and capability into your task list.

Endorphins are your friend: We are all aware of the health benefits of exercise. Even a short, 10 minute walk can do wonders in terms of clearing your head, getting some fresh air and pumping feel-good hormones into your bloodstream.

Coaching Up: Coaching up refers to the process of offering suggestions to your manager or boss about ways in which he or she can support you in the workplace. Sharing only as much as you feel comfortable, tell your manager how you prefer to receive instruction, how you respond to stressful situations, and what times of day you are most productive. This opens the lines of communication between you and your manager so that the work environment is a safer place for you even when you are experiencing a mental health issue.

Be kind to yourself: We are often our own harshest critics and when we become stressed, overwhelmed or down, we forget to be kind to ourselves! Be a friend to yourself and think of what advice or support you would give a dear friend if they came to you with the same feelings or worries that you are currently experiencing. As a friend, you would be understanding and highlight your friend’s strengths and positive qualities. Remember to be this kind of friend to yourself!

Anxiety, worry and even bouts of depression can be found at home and at work, and it is unrealistic to expect us to purge ourselves completely from these feelings or episodes of poor mental health. What we can do is improve the way we manage our symptoms and find ways to support ourselves through a difficult time. What do you do to get yourself through a stressful situation? Would you feel comfortable using any of the coping strategies listed above? I look forward to your thoughts below.


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Supporting Students in Times of Tragedy

university students grief

The recent tragedy involving the fatal stabbings of five Calgary university students has left the entire country reeling with shock and disbelief. Outside of immediate family and friends, University of Calgary students are those most strongly affected by the deaths of their peers. How does a student body, faculty and staff recover from such a set-back in morale, which has undoubtedly affected their studies as well as personal mental health? Just as importantly, how can Colleges and Universities be proactive and prepare themselves in anticipation of a tragedy occurring in their schools?

Considering that the university and college age demographic is highly vulnerable to mental health issues, especially in light of such tragedy and grief, it is vital that the educational institution bands together as a community to keep one another safe. The University of Calgary has been working diligently to provide support to the students of the university, encouraging them to participate in the vigils, funerals and celebrations of life for the victims, offering counselling sessions as well as accommodating students who wish to defer exams. How else can we support our students in a time like this?

Communication and Active Listening: Loss of life, especially of young people with such bright futures, can be very triggering for individuals within a community, so it is important that there are platforms for people to talk and listen to each other. Having counsellors available for students, staff and faculty as well as encouraging students to listen to and support one another is helpful in making people feel part of their community during difficult times.

Promote alternative counselling: Because university and college students fall into the Millennial generation, they sometimes prefer communicating through technology versus more traditional talk-therapy. Options like phone counselling, e-counselling, video-chat or the use of a mobile app, can target students who are less likely to ask for help outright and can access support within their comfort zone.

Prevention:  Often times, organizations are in a reactive mode to solving a problem, acting as if it was unexpected.  To be proactive is to be planned and prepared, albeit as much as one can be, and it is prudent when operating in a student environment.

Programs that help organizations be prepared for a tragic event should include the following:

1) Developing a Emergency Response Plan, such as the one the University of Toronto implemented in 2009  that maps out the course of action to take when a tragedy strikes an educational facility, utilizing all the available resources at your disposal.  But this is not enough:  all students and staff need to understand what that plan is, and know how to act accordingly in the event of a school crisis.  Just like there are school fire drills in case of fire, there should be emergency drills in case of campus violence.

2) As I’ve mentioned before in a previous blog, Millennial students often lack solid coping skills upon entering the post-secondary education setting. As a more long-term solution, an institution could implement Coping Skills Training, which would help students identify triggers to their mental health, and learn strategies to support themselves through a mental health issue

3) Stress Management Strategies, like the ones offered featured on the Santa Clara University can help individual students who are under pressure, feeling anxious, lonely, scared, or lost, to learn to cope with their mental health issues. For example, stress busting events that aim to help students relax during stressful times, such as during the exam period and during the harsh winter months, have been adopted by universities and colleges Stress Busters can help students learn the skills necessary in times of grief as well, as it can give students the permission they need to distract themselves from their period of anxiety and pressure.

What other strategies could an educational institution employ to support students during times of trauma, grief, and loss? What have you seen universities and Colleges do? I look forward to your thoughts below.


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Part 3 of 3: Our Call to Action

your_not_aloneZiggy Marley once said, “I believe we are all connected to other people. I am connected to people who are suffering. We all are.”

One of the biggest obstacles to strong mental health is the overwhelming sense of loneliness felt by our university and college-aged students. As I mentioned in the previous instalments of this 3-part blog series, while our students are more “connected” to the world via social media and their mobile devices, these same students are feeling crippling loneliness and a general lack of coping skills in their lives, as they often have not developed an identity separate from their parents or a strong sense of independence.

Chris Hadfield, Canadian astronaut and now-celebrity is always asked if he was lonely in space. His response was that you can be hundreds of thousands miles away from Earth and feel connected to people and the universe, and, at the same time, you can also be living in the centre of a metropolitan city and feel like the loneliest person in the world. A myth endures, which allows us to assume university and college students living away from home could never be lonely in dorms with thousands of other students “partying” all the time. However, they could very well be the loneliest people on Earth.

As parents, teachers, counsellors, siblings and peers of this demographic, what can we do to better support our students? We are beginning to understand the prevalence of mental health issues in Canada and how our current resources are exhausted from the increased demand. It could take years for the health care system to implement a structure that places mental health as a higher priority, so what are the steps we can take at a grassroots level to help students and the greater community now?

Below, you will find a list of collaborations and ideas that are already being set in motion by influential Canadian industries. And you might ask yourself, how can I, as one person, make any sort of impact? Like anything, if you look to hard at the big picture, beginning the process of finding a solution can seem too overwhelming. So I’ve included ways you can support these overarching goals in your community, your workplace or even in your home.

Collaboration: Recently, the Mental Health Commission of Canada embarked on a two-day conference with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police because, more and more the police force has become first responders in mental health crises. This partnership speaks to the new understanding that working together is the only way to move forward when a problem has as many touch points in society as mental health does.

In your own environments, encourage similar collaboration with mental health as your frame of reference. This can be achieved in different ways, from a professor-student-staff initiative within the university setting or organizing representatives from various departments in your workplace to avoid working in silos.

Education: The ultimate purpose of collaboration is to educate one another and to share resources. Every Canadian stakeholder is focused on the goal to improve the accessibility and support of those who suffer from mental health issues, from the health industry, to the government, to the education system. Each has valuable information to share and ways to support people suffering from mental illness.

Seek education on how to engage someone with a mental illness, learn to look for warning signs and changes and encourage others to do the same. We are often afraid of what we don’t understand, which is why we might feel like we wouldn’t know how to address someone who is suffering. With education behind you, you can feel confident in supporting someone through a difficult time.

Connectedness: A sense of belonging and a strong personal network are tools that help people with mental health issues feel less alone in their situation. As a society, we value individualism and privacy, but perhaps the pursuit of these ideas have moved us too far away from the strength gained from an environment based on community values. Universities and colleges have placed a greater focus on connecting students with their peers, providing forums to reach out in and raising awareness of the resources that are available.

Engage in conversation with people in your life and seek to understand their perspective. Find ways to stay present in face-to-face experiences, despite the temptation to “connect” via your devices and various social networks. Learn to notice small changes in behaviour, attitude and performance in those around you and don’t be afraid to ask someone how they are doing. You might be the only person who has shown them that kind of care in a while.

How else can we support our students as they learn to cope with the pressures of university? Where do you think the changes need to begin – At the top with governments and health care, or at the bottom within our homes, schools and communities, or both? I look forward to your comments below!


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Part 2 of 3: The Under-serviced Student

mental-health-ireland-390x285“We’re seeing twice as many kids as we were 10 years ago” Dr. Hazen Gandy of the psychiatry division at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. Dr. Hazen is referencing the growing number of teenagers presenting themselves at emergency rooms across Canada, with self-inflicted injuries and suicidal thoughts.

From 2009/2010 to 2012/2013, this Ontario hospital reported a 64% spike in hospital visits for mental health issues, which has led to overcrowded wait rooms and overburdened hospital beds. Statistics of this magnitude should shock us, but more importantly, we should be concerned as to the availability of resources to the rising number of teens who need them.

In some cases, chronic and long-term mental illness can lead to suicide ideation and attempts in teenagers, although mental health professionals are finding that more and more students do not fit the traditional criteria for disorders associated with self-harm and suicidal ideation. Instead, they are average students who suddenly don’t feel like they can manage.

Part 1 of this 3-part blog series explored the profile of a university/college student in 2014, where performance stressors, academics and financial pressures and “helicopter parents” all contributed to a deficiency of coping skills in this demographic. Simply put in economical terms, the supply is not meeting the increased demand for mental health services across Canada. But remember, these statistics only reflect the number of students who present their symptoms at emergency rooms – in effect, some of the most extreme suicidal episodes. That leaves a massively under-serviced student population who might be on outpatient counselling waiting lists and not necessarily acting on their negative emotions and thoughts, at this time.

With misdiagnoses, exhausted counselling resources, few affordable options and societal misperceptions of mental illness, we are only beginning to understand that the mental health care system currently in place is not meeting the needs of our young people. When a cultural crisis like this takes place, anything less than a concentrated overhaul in the way we perceive mental health is a Band-Aid solution that treats the symptoms of the trends we’re seeing, and not the causes.

In my next blog, and the final piece in this series, I will explore our call to action in our homes, workplaces and community, when it comes to supporting our students. What are your thoughts on the rise of mental health issues in the student demographic? Some mental health professionals are tentatively calling it an “epidemic” – do you think this is accurate? I look forward to your thoughts below.

Sources:

http://www.thespec.com/news-story/4414618-canadian-mental-health-services-strained-as-self-harming-teens-seek-help/


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Part 1 of 3: Today’s Post-Secondary School Student

o-MULTITASKING-facebookStudents entering college or university several decades ago lived a very different experience than today’s student: They used landlines, hand-wrote their essays and researched topics using only library books and encyclopedias. Today’s university student is a millennial, born between 1980 and 1994, and while this student benefits from smaller cellphones and Internet access, they embody a host of generation-specific difficulties when adapting to post-secondary education, most notably, mental health issues.

So what does today’s university and college student look like?

“Helicopter” Parents: The average student often comes from a very supportive familial unit, where parents are very involved with their child’s life, including their extra-curricular activities, academics and social calendar. Sometimes, this involvement leads to underdeveloped coping and problem-solving skills in children, because they learn that their parents want to protect them from difficulty or discomfort. This can result in university-aged students who have trouble managing stress and conflict when they experience the independent lifestyle of post-secondary education.

 Academic Pressures: Striving for individuality and well roundedness has become the goal for this generation, with a huge emphasis being placed on academic success. With this cultural pressure, a lack of consistency exists between school boards when it comes to grading and measurement of knowledge. Studies have found that students come into university or college with inflated high school grades, which can negatively affect self-esteem when entering post-secondary schooling where students are not earning the kind of grades they are used to.

Financial Stress: With the growing cultural expectation that you MUST have a degree in order to get a good job, many families cannot afford to put all of their post-secondary-bound children through school without help. Tuition rates are rising along with the cost of living, and many students rely on government funding to put themselves through school. And once students have graduated and have their degree in hand, they are left with monumental student debt and often limited job prospects.

Technology and Social Media savvy: Millennials are the most technologically connected of the generations, keeping in touch with friends and relatives all-too-easily through various social venues like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This constant barrage of information can lead to social anxiety and the idea that “everyone else is smarter, more successful, and has more friends than me”. With technology and mobile addiction on the rise, students are not developing vital interpersonal skills the way they have in the past, which can lead to feelings of social isolation – ironic when these are the same students with hundreds of Facebook Friends!

Today’s university and college student is bright, ambitious and well-connected and their unique challenges differ greatly from generations past. Part 2 of this series will discuss the need for change and implementation of more comprehensive support for this greatly underserviced demographic. With college and university student suicide rates on the rise in past years, mental health and mental illness need to be made a top priority. After reading this blog, do you notice any other characteristics that today’s post-secondary student embodies? I look forward to your comments below.

Sources:

http://www.collegequarterly.ca/2013-vol16-num01-winter/flatt.html

http://globalnews.ca/news/548478/young-minds-millennials-facing-increased-rates-of-stress-compared-to-other-generations/