Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Marijuana and Mental Health: What You Need to Know

weed-2517251_640Many, if not all of us, are aware marijuana is set to become legal in Canada in just a few short months, and there are many questions lingering as to how this will affect Canadians. Marijuana has been prescribed to treat physical conditions such as cancer, arthritis, and other physical pain for some time now, and some physicians have begun to prescribe medical marijuana for anxiety and PTSD, as well as depression. However, its effects on those users with mental health issues is largely in need of more clinical research, as the majority of research is from cannabis producers or focused on its illicit use. I want to explore these murky waters with you, and look at how medical marijuana and mental health are intimately linked.

Is Marijuana Good for Everyone’s Mental Health?

The Clinical Psychology Review recently reported that evidence has been found that marijuana can bring back feelings of pleasure for individuals with depression, and it can calm and soothe individuals with anxiety. It can even shut down the dream process for individuals living with nightmares from PTSD. However, not every mental health issue responds with a positive “high”; for some individuals with bipolar disorder, for example, there appears to be more negative side effects than positive ones.

Public opinion seems to hold that marijuana is a harmless substance that helps you to relax and “chill” and might even be good for your physical and mental health, unlike alcohol and tobacco. However, while there may be some truth to this, if higher amounts are consumed, it may instead increase anxiety and paranoia, and cause confusion and hallucinations that can last a few hours to some weeks in your system. Long-term use can also have a depressant effect and reduce motivation for some users.

Is It Addictive?

Studies suggest that marijuana may have a place in dealing with addiction, and with the sheer number of opioid overdoses in Canada as of late, we could see significant benefits if marijuana is used as a replacement for opioid medications, to reduce usage or even stop using opioids altogether. In 2013, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) found that individuals living with mental health issues were 10 times more likely to have a marijuana use disorder. Usage is particularly elevated for those with bipolar disorder, personality disorders and other substance use disorders. So does marijuana use cause mental health issues, or do people with these mental health disorders use it to self- medicate? Consider how marijuana has similar effects of addictive drugs, such as:

  • Tolerance
  • Craving
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sleep difficulty
  • Weight loss
  • Aggression
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Strange dreams

As well, when withdrawing, 3 out of 4 frequent and long-term marijuana users have reported experiencing cravings; half became irritable; and 7 out of 10 switch to tobacco in an attempt to stay off marijuana. At first, it can alleviate feelings of anxiety, but when the tolerance level builds, it becomes cyclical – not only does one need more to relieve the anxiety, but every attempt to stop can make the anxiety return at a more elevated level than before.

Long-term Effects and Vulnerability

Research over the last 10 years has suggested there is a possibility of developing a psychotic illness, and regular use has appeared to double the risk of developing a psychotic episode or even schizophrenia, particularly in those who are genetically vulnerable to mental illness. Early marijuana use in adolescents and later mental health problems has clearly been linked in those with a genetic vulnerability. These numbers are too high to ignore – teens who used marijuana daily were five times more likely to develop depression and anxiety in later life.

Ultimately, there is not enough research in the area of marijuana as treatment for mental health issues, and we need to hold it to the same standard as any other drug out there. As the laws change, we must remain proactive, and not reactive to what is really going on, and not create more health concerns than we are striving to reduce.

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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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Can You Effect Change in 2018 without Resolutions?

shutterstock_753302986Ah, it’s January of a new year, a time most people reflect on the past year – what worked, what didn’t and what should have been done. Then we see our co-workers and our friends and family, and we are often asked “So what are YOUR New Year’s resolutions?” The common responses tend to be health-related, such as losing weight, quitting smoking and exercising regularly, or financial, such as debt reduction and better money management. But when we reflect, we can see why last year’s resolutions weren’t fulfilled, and that’s due to the fact that they are just that – resolutions. Resolutions have been shown to have been actualized less than 10% of the time.

So is it possible to have the best intentions for 2018 without having actual resolutions? Absolutely. Let me share with you some ways you can effect positive change in your life by simply adjusting the way you perceive those intentions.

Turning a Plan into Action – The readiness to change, or how prepared a person is to enter the action stage of changing their behaviour, has been found to be the single best predictor of New Year’s resolution success, with those who have intention to be 10 times more likely to succeed than adults who were not yet ready to put plans into action.

Unrealistic Goals and Expectations – People often make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves, but if they aren’t ready to change their habits, particularly bad habits, then success will be difficult to achieve. Set only one resolution to focus on, and be specific. Setting short-term goals which are attainable and realistic, such as “I am going to lose 2 lbs. per week for the next 10 weeks” vs. “I am going to lose 20 lbs. starting now”, have been found to be more effective in the long term. With systems in place that reward new behaviours, while avoiding high-risk situations that allow for a step-back, it can be easier to stay on track.

Be Accountable to Someone – Have a buddy, someone close to you, to cheer you on but also to whom you have to report to at set intervals and maintain this accountability. This person can remind you of your success achieved thus far, and help you celebrate along the way, not just at the end.

Changing the Way You Think – By focusing your thinking on creating new behaviours and thought patterns, you will be able to change your habits. This involves creating new neural pathways in your brain that set your habitual thoughts to the “new standard”, and become your default when faced with new situations, like when you are faced with the dessert menu and others are ordering from it. Your new way of thinking becomes your way of creating positive habits.

Be Present and Mindful – When you focus on the moment, and not what happened in the past or worry about the future, you can be mindful of our feelings and think of what we can do TODAY to achieve your goal. In fact, if you can visualize having already attained your goal, this will help you create readiness and intention to pursue it.

How will you make changes in your life this year? Have you found success with these tips? I look forward to hearing from you!


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Maintaining Strong Mental Health During the Holidays

gift-2870161_1920As 2017 comes to an end, we begin to reflect on our year and prepare for the holidays. No doubt you’ve heard the festive music and seen the bright decorations by now. And if you’ve seen any advertisements, they probably feature smiling faces and holiday joy. But with so much cheer all around, this time of year can be a serious strain on one’s mental health. With personal and professional social events to plan and attend, the holidays can intensify feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. That’s why I want to discuss some common causes of stress and anxiety this holiday season, and share tips on how to minimize the negative effects that may result.

Be Careful Not To Take On Too Much

One of the most challenging aspects of the holidays is the pressure to commit significant amounts of money and time. Between gift giving and spending time with family and friends, sometimes it can feel like you’ve bit off more than you can chew. As such, it’s important to commit to both a budget and a schedule this holiday season. By planning a budget in advance and sticking to it, you can avoid unnecessary expenses that will get you into financial trouble.

Furthermore, creating a schedule will ensure that you find the perfect balance between attending holiday events and having personal time for rest and relaxation. Also, don’t feel bad if you can’t attend every party or event you’ve been invited to! People are generally understanding, and they’re likely in the exact same boat as you.

Enjoy the Time You Spend With Family

The holidays offer quality time to spend with family while many have time off from work or school. In certain cases, spending the holidays with family can bring feelings of tension, stress, and sadness. For some families, there may be specific personalities or past differences that could lead to conflict between family members. If this rings true for you, it can be helpful to set boundaries. Try to stay away from certain topics or situations that could become heated, and don’t be afraid to speak up or excuse yourself from a situation that makes you feel uncomfortable.

For other families, the holidays can act as an unfortunate reminder of the loss of a loved one. While the holiday season may be a difficult time, it also offers the opportunity to create new traditions, especially those that honour a loved one and incorporate their interests.

Don’t Forget Your Healthy Habits

Everyone has their own traditions of how they spend the holidays, but there’s usually a couple of activities we indulge in more than at any other time of the year: food and drink, and sometimes, lots of both. While I’m hardly one to take issue with some of the tasty holiday dishes or festive beverages at this time of year, the indulgence can create feelings of guilt and stress.

Try to remember a few healthy habits. For one, eat a healthy snack right before you go to a holiday event. This trick will ensure that you fit in a healthy option, but will also lessen your hunger and thus your urge to indulge in sweets! Pace yourself when it comes to participating in alcohol consumption. Remember that alcohol numbs the senses, as it is a depressant. And of course, I would be remiss not to remind you to always have a designated driver when you’ve been drinking alcohol. Additionally, incorporate some physical activity on your days off. Winter sports or even a walk outside are great forms of exercise to balance out some of the hearty meals you’ll be eating.

While stress and anxiety may feel inevitable during this time of year, it’s important to remember the happiness that comes with it as well. There’s bound to be positive moments in exchanging gifts, enjoying a delicious meal, and spending time with family and friends that you haven’t seen in a while. So if you keep these positives in mind, and follow the aforementioned tips to stay healthy this season, you’ll be sure to enjoy the holiday cheer this December. Happy Holidays!


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Keeping Physically and Mentally Fit this Winter

k-s21-eye-0187November is here and the countdown to the holiday season can officially begin. As we look forward to spending time with family and friends, it’s important that we prepare for some of the gloomier elements that the colder weather brings. After all, colder weather is known to negatively affect our bodies, as well as our mental health. When our physical health takes a toll, our mental health can be affected as a result. But if we take a proactive, preventative approach, we can improve our physical and mental health all while fighting the winter blahs.

Here are my recommendations for maintaining a healthy mind and body this winter:

  • Keep moving – One of the biggest health issues in winter is that we limit the amount of time we spend being active. Spending time each day being active, even if it’s simply going for a walk around your office, has been shown to improve your physical health. If you’re fond of winter weather, you can partake in weather-related activities such as sledding or building a snowman with your family, or ice-skating with your significant other or friends.
  • Eat healthy – It’s no secret that winter is flu season, and if you work in a larger office, it won’t be hard to find a co-worker with a cold this winter. Your body is spending more energy than usual to stay warm, so it’s important that you incorporate immune-system boosting foods, like fruits, vegetables and yogurt into your diet, so that you’re less likely to be bogged down with a winter ailment.
  • Make time to reduce stress – Everyone has different ways to reduce their stress levels. For some, simply taking the time to reflect on the cause of the stress does wonders. For others, taking a day off is needed to adjust and refocus. Whatever your technique, remember to make time to schedule it in, even if it doesn’t feel absolutely necessary. I have a few ideas to help you reduce stress: listen to music, meditate, connect with friends and family, and ensure you get enough sleep each night.

You may notice that to improve your health and mood this winter, you won’t need to take any truly drastic steps. It can be challenging to juggle all the hustle and bustle of the season, so living a physically healthy lifestyle this winter can go a long way in managing your mental health. After all, this holiday season is about celebrating with family and friends; and, as long as you take a few proactive steps, you’ll be ready to celebrate in good spirits!


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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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Get Outside! Ecotherapy Can Benefit Your Mental Health

With Earth Day coming up on April 22nd, let’s celebrate by making a commitment to reconnect with nature and reap the benefits.

Urbanization has caused our disconnection with nature

More than 50% of the world’s populations now live in urban settings and we’re contending with sensory overload on a daily basis. In order to keep up with our lifestyles and work demands, many of us are sleep-deprived, fighting traffic or overcrowded transit systems, and eating at our desks. We spend little to no time outdoors in green spaces. As a result, numerous studies have shown that urban dwellers are at a much higher risk for anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses than people who live in more rural settings.

Some countries are actively using ecotherapy (also known as natural therapy or green therapy) to combat the effects of urbanization. These programs encourage interacting with nature and participating in outdoor activities, to help heal and nurture the mind and body. There are three therapeutic “healing forests” in South Korea (with 34 more planned by 2017). In Sweden, virtual nature spaces are prescribed for workers suffering from stress.

Fresh air is good for you

We all know about the benefits of physical exercise, but just being in nature can improve your mental outlook. You don’t have to bike or run; you can sit on a park bench, go for a stroll, or sit on a patio to reap the benefits. And you don’t have to make a major time commitment. You can benefit significantly from spending just 15 minutes a day in nature.

How spending time in nature can improve your mental health

There are many benefits to connecting with nature:

  • Mood elevation
  • Restored mental energy
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower stress levels
  • Increased alertness
  • Better concentration
  • Improved short-term memory
  • Better sleep
  • Increase in Vitamin D

Small changes can make a big difference

As an employer, you can help your employees reconnect with nature. With pleasant weather upon us this spring, encourage your employees to take their lunch breaks outside or at least go for a walk around the block. If your office building has outdoor spaces, put out some picnic tables. Organize group outdoor activities in the summer months – a weekly softball or Frisbee game over the lunch hour or after work, potluck lunch at the local park with a badminton net and three-legged races, golf tournaments, or a harbour cruise. These activities will boost morale and improve mental health, which is beneficial for your employees’ overall health.

What are you doing to help your employees reconnect with nature?