Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Suicide in the Media: Making Your Feelings Your Own

woman-1006100_1280As you may have heard, the world has lost two iconic celebrities to suicide in the past two weeks: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Although an average of 11 suicides are committed every day in Canada, we tend to pay more attention to the subject when the media covers celebrity deaths.

With news stories reporting more and more information about celebrities, their families, and the state of their mental health, you may find yourself comparing your life and state of mind to theirs. Since the suicide rate increased by 10% in the United States shortly after Robin Williams took his life, how can we prevent the same from happening after every celebrity suicide?

We sometimes find it difficult to understand why celebrities, who seem to have the world as their oyster, would commit suicide. If we are having difficulties with work, money, or love, and it seems that celebrities have everything going for them, why is their life less worth living than ours?

At the risk of sounding cliché, money may make things easier, but it does not buy happiness. Regardless of one’s financial or social status, experiencing difficulties with mental health has no boundaries. Celebrities face several roadblocks on the path to happiness, just as we might. No matter how many news stories are posted, detailing facts (or rumours) about a person of interest, we can never truly know a celebrity’s complete story. Their experiences and difficulties are their own; just because they are famous doesn’t mean their problems are any more or less important than yours or mine.

One recommendation I have to cope with the influx of celebrity suicide coverage in the media is to avoid applying “should” to your feelings or those of other people. For example, “I should be miserable because my life is worse than Anthony Bourdain’s.” There is no “should” when it comes to emotions. You feel the way that you feel, and there is a reason for it. Whether or not you know or understand that reasoning, your feelings are just as valid as anybody else’s.

If recent events have helped you recognize that you have difficulties managing your mental health, I ask you to seek help. If you are unsure where your mental health stands, let the passing of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain be your push to talk to someone. Check in with your 24/7 Employee or Student Assistance Program, reach out to a friend or a family member, or call one of many available 24-hour suicide hotlines.

And please don’t forget to follow up with your loved ones who may be affected by sensationalized media coverage of celebrity suicides. Learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression, and let your friends, family, and coworkers know that no one is alone.

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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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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!