Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria

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#MentalHealth

Blue Monday, which occurs on the 3rd Monday of January, is often publicized online and in the news as the most depressing day of the year. While scientific evidence has proven this is not true, this term continues to trend on social media every January and contributes to the conversation around mental health awareness. January is also home to Bell Media’s popular mental health awareness campaign #BellLetsTalk, where Bell contributes proceeds from every #BellLetsTalk hashtag used in text messages or on social media on that day to support mental health organizations.

With all of these social media initiatives contributing to the conversation around mental health, I am amazed at how far we have come. There was a time when people were encouraged to hide their mental illness from the world, due to stigma and shame. Now, there are hundreds of online support communities that want people to share their mental health stories and show them they are not alone. Social media has truly changed the way we look at mental health.

In 2018, it is expected that 20 million Canadians will have at least one social media account to connect with the world around them, share news, and stay in touch with friends. Social media also provides us with a sense of community. People suffering with their mental health often describe being stigmatized by their illness and have trouble speaking out about it at school or work. The mental health community on social media has given people an opportunity to contribute to mental health awareness by giving them a voice. People can now search a hashtag like, #TalkAboutIt on Twitter or search mental heath support groups on Facebook and find like-minded individuals who are experiencing the same things they are. The ability to connect with others through social media is an incredible thing.

Regular people dealing with mental health challenges aren’t the only ones speaking up. Social media gives us access to celebrities and influencers like never before. It should come as no surprise that celebrities, just like us, suffer from mental health issues or know some who does. A lot of popular celebrities have come forward via social media in recent years to speak about their mental health and support others who are dealing with mental health challenges of their own. Well-known public figures such as Carrie Fisher, Lady Gaga and Ryan Reynolds have used their social platforms to help reduce the stigma around mental illness. Seeing this kind of support and acceptance from a huge celebrity can truly make a difference to someone who is dealing with their own mental health challenges.

Mental health organizations are also now using social media to help them implement campaigns around mental health awareness. Organizations like CAMH and The Canadian Mental Health Association have utilized social media to show followers what they’re working on and the impact their organization has on mental health. People dealing with mental health issues are now a lot more aware of the services that these organizations provide, and have the ability to connect with them more efficiently than ever before.

That being said, I know there is a dark side to social media use as well. Issues like cyber bullying continue to plague these social networks, and can end up creating mental health challenges instead of assisting them. That’s why I think it’s so important to practice the kinds of values that are promoted on these trending days, like acceptance and understanding, year round.

With 30 years of experience in the mental health field, seeing the outpour of support that comes through on social media on days like #BellLetsTalk or #WorldMentalHealthDay is amazing. While I don’t love every aspect of social media, I do love the mental health community that has emerged as a result of it.


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Better Mental Health? Sign Me Up!

volunteer-1550327_960_720There’s no doubt about it: the holidays can be stressful. As we make time for friends and family, parties and gift exchanges, the entire season can be hectic. The rush to purchase presents for our loved ones can feel almost like a chore as opposed to an exciting activity. Depression rates during the holiday season are also high. Students are dealing with the pressures of exams before heading home, and adults dealing with difficult family or relationship problems or the loss of a loved one can dread this time of year when we are supposed to be the most joyful. So how can we bring back the magic of the holiday season?

As I was discussing this issue with a colleague recently, he explained that after years of stress around the holidays, his family began volunteering at a soup kitchen every holiday season. He told me, “It really puts things into perspective. As I stress about finding the perfect present for my wife, there are people out there who worry about having enough food to feed their families everyday.” Volunteering his time to help the less fortunate during the holidays helped him appreciate all the blessings he had been taking for granted.

Not only does volunteering provide a sense of gratitude, it also has benefits for your overall mental health. A 2013 Harvard Medical School publication outlined the mental health benefits of volunteering your time to help others in need. The article states, “volunteering helps people who donate their time feel more socially connected, thus warding off loneliness and depression.” Around this time of year when these types of emotions may be magnified, volunteering can be even more beneficial.

Volunteering can add meaning to our lives. We live our lives looking for happiness in a vast world of billions of inhabitants, often feeling lonely, sad, and insignificant when we can’t find it. We are often misguided when we pursue material possessions we think will bring us happiness. Getting involved in activities that have purpose, that will make a difference – maybe to just one person, can add meaning to our lives. We all want to make a difference in our lives and this is what volunteering can achieve.

So how can you get involved this holiday season? From delivering gifts to the less fortunate to assisting at a homeless shelter, there are hundreds of ways you can volunteer. For example, click here to visit the Food Banks Canada website and see how you can help hungry Canadians this holiday season.

While the holiday season is difficult for a lot of people, giving back and volunteering your time to the less fortunate will not only help improve the lives of others, but also benefit your own mental health in the process.

 

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World Mental Health Day: What is Psychological First Aid?

On Monday, October 10th, we celebrated World Mental Health Day. Every year, the World Health Organization (WHO) dedicates a day to raise awareness for the millions of people all over the world who are dealing with mental health issues. As someone who has worked in the mental health field for over 25 years, I can’t begin to express how pleased I am that we now have a day dedicated to mental health awareness, globally. For a large part of my career, mental health issues were often stigmatized and hidden from the world, but as society has progressed, we are now able to more openly discuss these issues.

This year, the WHO chose “Psychological First Aid” as the World Mental Health Day theme. When we think first aid, we often picture either a first aid kit or a first responder like a police officer or firefighter. Psychological first aid is different. Instead of quickly responding to and healing physical injuries, psychological first aid is a practice that involves treating people for psychological damage after traumatic incidents.

Psychological first aid (PFA) is defined as “the evidence-informed approach for assisting people in the aftermath of disaster and terrorism.” PFA occurs when trained individuals quickly assess a person’s mental health after an incident, and can help them remain calm and get them the psychological assistance they need, as opposed to letting them deal with the traumatic event on their own. For example, PFA is often utilized when people in a war-torn nation have been subjected to a violent event. Field workers who specialize in the subject are brought in to help the people who have witnessed the trauma, and have been trained to give them the proper psychological attention they need.

We live in a world where, unfortunately, traumatic events occur. War, natural disasters and violence occur frequently all over the globe. On a smaller scale, accidents can happen in our own communities that leave us mentally shaken.

For example, a recent train derailment in New Jersey resulted in the death of a woman waiting on the platform. This shocking incident would have been traumatic for not only those directly involved, but for anyone connected to the situation. After an event like this occurs, it’s crucial to assess the physical health of all those involved, but neglecting to treat them immediately for psychological trauma can result in long-lasting scars on a person’s mental health.

Say one of your colleagues witnesses a horrific car crash on their way to work. Once they get to the office, they attempt to go about their day, business as usual, instead of processing the intense emotions they feel after witnessing that event. If internalized for too long, this employee might suffer from long-term mental health issues as a result, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety. It’s important that HR managers have the knowledge to deal with a situation like this as fast as possible.

Training for psychological first aid is similar to that of physical first aid, in that you need to take a course in order to be properly trained. For those HR managers who have not yet taken the course, here are a few “first-steps” on how you can help someone who has just been through a crisis:

After assessing the environment for safety concerns and familiarizing yourself with the event that has taken place:

  1. Make contact. It’s important that you approach this person respectfully. It’s hard to judge what they might be thinking at that moment, as they will most likely be experiencing shock. As you carefully begin talking to them, let them know you are here to help and will keep them safe.
  1. Ask about needs and concerns. While this may seem obvious in some situations, it’s important to ask what they need at that moment and what their priorities are. If they need to make a call, you can help facilitate that.
  2. This is the most important step of PFA. If the employee is willing to talk, it’s crucial that you listen to what they have to say. Talking about a traumatic event can be difficult but it allows people to feel less alone.
  3. Refer them to your organization’s EAP. They have the tools to handle these kinds of situations, and will be able to assist your employee throughout the healing process.

Traumatic events don’t just impact the people directly involved. If someone in your office has been through a crisis, it can impact the entire workplace. Unfortunately, we live in a world where accidents happen. I’m so pleased that World Mental Health Day has been able to spotlight this necessary training. It’s important that HR managers know the basic principles of PFA, in case they ever need to utilize it in their workplace and help an employee through a difficult situation.

 

 

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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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Staying Motivated During Uncertain Times

Aspiria-Motivation (1)Have you noticed how the news channels only seem to show tragedies around the world? I remember when an unexpected event would make headlines, and we were shocked by how horrific the situation was, and how many lives were taken. Today’s news headlines seem to be filled with airport bombings, gun massacres, immigrants fleeing en masse for their safety on lifeboats, uncontrollable forest fires, planes disappearing off radars, and stabbings in our neighbourhoods. The reports from all media are continuous, 24/7, and we are supposed to process the devastation and get on with our daily lives without interruption to our psyche?

As employers, you may have employees who are feeling the effects of all this chaos trickling down and affecting their ability to function at work at their best. You may observe this as more frequent sick days, employees arriving late or leaving early, and not asking for or taking more vacation time. Others may decline attending office parties, staff lunches, and other events or meetings with coworkers; difficulty dealing with problems, setting and meeting deadlines, maintaining personal relationships, managing staff, participating in meetings, and making presentations.

Depending on the individual employee, they can start to develop Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). These individuals may not feel that they are actively worrying, but this exaggerated fear can cause constant stress, and can stop them from living life fully.

Some signs of GAD can include:

  • Excessive, ongoing worry and tension
  • An unrealistic view of problems
  • Restlessness or a feeling of being “edgy”
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating, and easily distracted from daily chores
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Being easily startled

How can you help? Be diligent in providing reassurance about their performance. As an employer, you can support your staff by encouraging an open-door philosophy to have a conversation about how they are doing and where they can find help. Show your support through posters in the lunchroom or through intranet communications, promoting self-help assistance or external resources such as the EAP.

Recognizing feeling of fear in ourselves and those around us, and supporting each other in unsure times, will help to motivate, rather than paralyze, creating a path to living life to its fullest.


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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.