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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Good Mood Food: How to Eat Your Way to Better Mental Health

There’s no doubt about it – life at College and University can be tough. With exams to study for, papers to finish, and deadlines to meet, it’s far too easy to put healthy eating on the backburner. This is unfortunate, as our diet has a huge impact on our happiness levels. Considering the rising rate of mental health issues on school campuses, it’s becoming more important than ever for students to focus on eating healthy.

In celebration of National Nutrition Month this March, I’ve outlined 4 simple ways that you can boost your mood through the foods you eat.

Add More Omega-3 Fatty Acids

What’s your go-to snack that gets you through all those late night study sessions? If you’re like many students, chances are it’s one that’s packed with trans and saturated fats.

The average North American diet is much higher in trans and saturated fats and is lacking in the essential omega-3 fatty acids. This is troubling, as studies have shown that high levels of these fats can actually lead to depression. The good news is, research tells us that omega-3 fatty acids have a mood-stabilizing effect that can in fact reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

How can you add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet? Great options include oily fish such as salmon, trout, and anchovies. If fish isn’t quite your cup of tea, try leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale.

Choose Foods High in Antioxidants

I have some great news for you chocolate lovers: eating foods that are high in antioxidants is a great way to maintain positive mental health and wellbeing.

Antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene help minimize molecules in the body known as “free radicals”. Free radicals are detrimental to our mental health, and they are one of the leading causes of major depression. The silver lining? It has been proven that antioxidants help to fight these molecules, reducing symptoms of depression and improving our overall mental health.

On top of dark chocolate, foods that are rich in these mood-boosting antioxidants include tomatoes, blueberries, cranberries, artichoke, and kidney beans.

Increase your Vitamin B12 Intake

How many nights have you stayed up late studying only to find yourself feeling a little bit down the next day?

I like to think of vitamin B12 as a “miracle” vitamin when it comes to perking up and improving your mood.

Research has found that those who have vitamin B12 deficiencies have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and irritability. Vitamin B12 reduces these feelings by producing a chemical called ‘dopamine’ in the body. Dopamine is an essential chemical that helps to regulate our emotional response, boost our happiness levels, and improve our mood altogether.

To add more vitamin B12 to your diet, try eating more fish, beef, eggs, cheese, and milk.

Go for the Good Bacteria

Did you know that not all bacteria are bad bacteria? It’s true – eating foods that are high in ‘probiotic’ bacteria is a great way to improve your mental health.

Studies have confirmed that probiotics reduce inflammation as well as increase serotonin production within the body. This is great for your mental health, as inflammation causes higher levels of depression and stress, while serotonin helps boost your happiness levels. By consuming probiotics, you are effectively giving your body a natural antidepressant.

If you’re looking to add more depression-fighting probiotics to your diet, try making yogurt your snack of choice.

As a post-grad many, many, many years ago, I understand how busy your days on campus can get. It’s often much easier to choose quick, “on-the-go” snacks than to make a wholesome, nutritious meal. But if improving your mental health and wellbeing is something you value, consider taking that extra time. You’ll feel a whole lot better about it – inside and out.

To learn more about how you can improve your mental health through your diet, check out our Online and Telephonic Nutritional Service through your Student or Employee Assistance Program.


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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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Dealing With An Empty Nest

While thousands of Canadian students are adjusting to their first few weeks of university or college, parents are facing a new challenge as well. For many, this is the first year their children have gone away to school and moved out of the family home. While seeing our children grow up and mature as adults is exciting for any parent, we can also be left with feelings of emptiness and sadness.

The first year of university or college symbolizes the beginning of adulthood for incoming freshmen, but it can feel like the end of an era for a lot of parents. The concept of ‘attachment’ is well documented in the work of John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who in the late 1950s, developed a theory of personality based around attachment. Bowlby defined attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings, one that is universal among all cultures’. Bowlby believed that attachment can be understood within an evolutionary context in that the caregiver provides safety and security for the infant. He believed that children have a universal need to seek close proximity with their caregiver when under stress or threatened.

Fast forward to 2016 and we find that when that close proximity to the family home is removed, like when our children go off to live at university or college, the impact is not only felt by the child, but also by the parents.  So what happens when the attachment between a parent and child is disengaged?

We start to feel what we commonly refer to now as ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’. The Mayo Clinic defines Empty Nest Syndrome as feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. While the term “Empty Nest Syndrome” is relativity new in the mental health world, the sadness associated with children leaving home is not.

I recently read an article on the subject in The Washington Post, where author Michael Gearson wrote about his son, “He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go.” Sometimes as parents, we focus on our children so much that we forget what life was ever like without them.

When my children left for university and college, I distinctly remember how quiet my home felt. Letting go of the role we’ve had for 18 plus years was a difficult adjustment. It felt like I had lost an extension of myself like a part of my identity had been taken away. In single-parent households, Empty Nest Syndrome can be especially difficult to handle, as children are often the parent’s primary companions.

Although I am a firm believer that a major role as parents is to teach our children to become independent so they are prepared to thrive without us, the adjustment for not only our children, but for parents, can be difficult.

The first few weeks of a quiet home without our children are always difficult As you settle in to your new life as an empty nester, here are some tips to get you through the initial transition:

  • Keep in touch. With modern technology, our loved ones are only ever a phone call or a Face Time away. While it’s important to give your children some space to grow, it’s comforting to know you can contact them anytime.
  • Develop new hobbies. With more free time, parents can participate in new activities or take interesting classes to give themselves more of an identity outside of being a parent.
  • Reach out. Friends and family members are sure to have gone through a similar experience, it’s important for parents to talk to someone about their feelings of loss. If feelings of sadness and loneliness persist, consider counselling or look into your company’s EAP.
  • Stay Positive. This new freedom allows parents to indulge in dreams they’ve been putting off for years, like taking that trip you’ve always talked about!

Letting go of your children is hard. As parents, it’s important to remember that while we might have a hard time dealing with their absence, our children are growing into the independent, educated, and well-rounded adults we always dreamed they’d become.

And just remember, whenever it feels like you miss your child too much, they’ll be home for Thanksgiving with a truckload of laundry for you.

 

 


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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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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.


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Are you listening to me?

deep convo

If you were to poll the employees in your office, you would find that most people believe they are great listeners. They spend most of their day on the phone, communicating with colleagues and giving and receiving instructions. They’ve been listening all their lives – of course they would be good at it! Take the quiz I’ve compiled and see how many of these phrases sound like you:

1. Sometimes I find it easier to concentrate on listening to someone when I am doing something with my hands.

2. In order to contribute to the conversation, I tell a story I think is similar to the one the person is telling.

3. In order to help the person I’m talking to feel heard, I assure them,“I know exactly how you feel”.

4. I try not to distract the person I’m listening to by nodding, gesturing or interrupting their story with “mm-hmm’s” and “uh-huh’s”.

5. I want to be able to offer the best advice possible, so I often think of what I’m going to say while the other person is talking so I don’t forget.

6. To show that we have a close relationship and that I’m on the same page as them, I will often find myself finishing his or her sentence for them.

7. A silence while someone is sharing something important is never good – I try to fill silences as often as I can. 

How did you do on this quiz? Are you a good listener?

I won’t deceive you any longer. This quiz was compiled to demonstrate exactly what good listeners do NOT do. But the behaviours listed above don’t seem all that bad, you might be thinking. Good listening requires some social nuances that you may not be aware of . Listening is also an active activity, one that takes attention and effort – whereas hearing may be considered passive. So, let’s break down what it means to actually be a good and active listener, using the examples above.

1. While it may be easier for you to listen while fidgeting or having your hands occupied, you may be giving off the impression that you are distracted, even if you are listening intently! The last thing you want is the person sharing with you to feel like you would rather be doing something else than listening to them.

2. It’s understandable that you might want to share a story about a similar experience or event while listening to someone – you want them to know you understand where they’re coming from! As a good listener, however, you must understand that no two situations are exactly the same, and even if experiences are similar, his or her take on the experience may be very different from yours. As well, when you respond to someone else’s shared experience with your own experience of a perceived similar event, the conversation then becomes about you not them, and this does not reinforce to the other person that you are truly listening to their needs. Respect the differences and try to understand their experience.

3. To reiterate the point above, you may have had similar experiences, but do you truly know exactly how someone feels? The person sharing with you may feel invalidated by hearing that their feelings are normal, common, or worse, not worth the time they are spending talking about them with you. In fact, the other person could very well feel that this exchange has now become about you and not about the information they’ve shared with you. Avoid saying you know exactly how someone feels, and instead seek to understand the intricacies of their unique feelings.

4. This particular behaviour might be a contentious point, because differences in culture and demographics can affect whether using supportive noises such as “uh-huh” and “mm-hmm” are appropriate as a listener. For some, supportive noises and sounds encourage a speaker to continue sharing and demonstrates a listener’s interest and care for the person and the subject matter. For others, these noises could be considered interruptive. Do your best to understand what is appropriate, respecting cultural differences.

5. If you are thinking of the next thing you will say as a person is talking, you are not giving the other person your full attention. Ultimately, the person you are listening to will likely appreciate that they’ve been fully heard versus receiving advice you formulated while multi-tasking, or not interested.

6. This is another contentious one: When you attempt to finish someone’s sentences correctly, the other person might appreciate the feeling of understanding, familiarity and closeness associated with your relationship in that moment. Get it wrong, however, and you run the risk of seeming interruptive and totally in left field about how the person feels. Finishing other people’s sentences can also be perceived as a sign that you are not being patient and respectful of the other person needing more time to articulate their thoughts into speech. Better to avoid finishing someone’s sentences unless you are very close with the other person and can accurately predict their thinking.

7. Never fear silence! Silence can allow you to collect your thoughts as an active listener in order to understand and give better advice, as well as encourage the speaker to share more about what they’re feeling.

Now that you have some tools to better equip yourself as a listener, test them out! See if you can pick up on your habits and traits as a listener, and how you can better develop this important skill – both for use in your personal life and the workplace.  Remember, to be a good listener, you need to be an active listener.

Do you still consider yourself a good and active listener? Were any of the behaviours surprising to you?