Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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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?


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High-Functioning Depression: The Mental Illness that Hides in Plain Sight

April 7th is World Health Day, and this year’s theme is “Depression: Let’s Talk”. While we have focused quite a bit on the topic of depression in light of “Bell Let’s Talk Day” only being a few weeks ago, I thought I’d discuss an issue that doesn’t get as much attention as it should – high-functioning depression.

Take a minute to think about an employee you talk to every day. You may chat with them about their family, discuss your plans for the weekend, or even joke around with them. Now imagine that on the inside, that employee is suffering from low energy, negative thoughts, and is struggling to keep a smile on their face. This is the reality for people living with high-functioning depression.

Just like regular depression, high-functioning depression results in loss of energy and feelings of hopelessness. The difference is, people with high-functioning depression don’t show any of these symptoms physically. They can go to work in the morning and perform tasks perfectly well. In fact, they could even be one of the highest-performing employees on your team. One could say that the “overachievers should not be overlooked”.

When it comes to high-functioning depression, a person’s outward behaviour doesn’t match the reality of what they are feeling. They plow through to get things done in their personal and professional lives, but are “exhausted”. High-functioning depression has been likened to “running a race with a weighted vest”. Because that vest is “invisible”, the illness often goes unnoticed by friends, family, coworkers, and HR managers.

Although the nature of high-functioning depression makes it difficult to detect, it’s certainly not impossible. There are subtle signs that may help you tell when an employee is suffering. Recognizing the signs can be crucial to preventing the situation from developing, and ensuring support is in place. Let me share with you some of the signs that an employee may have high-functioning depression:

  • Constant self-criticism and/or feelings of low self-worth
  • Place too much pressure on themselves
  • Feel like they are wasting time on the job
  • Feel like they have little life purpose or are lost
  • Feel like they are a nuisance to their family and friends
  • May have substance abuse problems outside of work
  • Worry about the small stuff and are unable to let things go

The feelings associated with these signs are not necessarily manifested on the outside and these signs do not necessarily indicate the presence of high-functioning depression, but glimpses of these signs can be flags for you to offer support.

It’s important for a manager, HR or otherwise, to remember that a mental illness doesn’t have to be seen to be real. Ensuring that you’re checking in with your staff and starting an open dialogue can make all the difference when it comes to helping an employee with high-functioning depression. Employees are more likely to ask for help from their employer when you provide them with a supportive environment.

Do you pay attention to the employees that seem “okay” on the outside? Do you have the support mechanisms in place to encourage open communication?


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Women and Wellness in the Workplace

This past March 8th was National Women’s Day. It was a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women all around the world. Although it was only one short day, I think it’s great that we are taking the time to acknowledge all the wonderful things that women have accomplished.

One accomplishment that stands out to me is the growing number of women in the workplace. It’s fantastic that in 2014, women made up almost half of the labour force compared to just 37% in 1976.

While it augurs well that more and more companies are hiring female employees, it does bring with it a new set of mental health matters that an HR manager should consider. Although mental health affects everyone, women experience more stress, anxiety, and depression at work than men do. In fact, research has found that women are 1.4 times more likely to suffer from these mental illnesses than their male colleagues.

I’d like to share with you two main reasons why women in the workplace suffer mental health issues more than men, as well as some solutions you can use to help minimize them at your workplace.

Domestic Responsibilities

When women consider the choice to start a family, enter the workforce or return to work after having children, care for elderly parents, or pursue advancement within their career, they are considering work-life balance. Although working husbands and fathers have taken on more familial responsibilities over the years, women still tend to take on the majority of these responsibilities. Juggling career pressures with family obligations can increase risks of stress, anxiety, and even depression.

So how can managers give women the support they need? Providing programs that offer greater work-life balance is the key. This balance means different things to different families, but could include encouraging flexible working hours, allowing telecommuting, and implementing child-care services. I know it may not always be possible to establish these family-friendly services, but an important thing you can do is to be more accommodating and ask the women in your organization what would be helpful to them. Making small changes to your mindset can go miles in positively impacting the wellbeing of the women in your workplace.

Inequality 

Even though we have seen quite a positive improvement in women joining the labour force, many women still experience inequality in their career. One study shows that women earn about 26% less than men do. On top of still receiving lower pay, women also face higher levels of job insecurity as well as lack of career advancement. Unsurprisingly, this causes high rates of anxiety, depression, and distress among female workers. A large part of wellness is equality, so a valuable step you can take is to ensure that your workplace enforces pay equity.

To encourage female leadership, many companies are rewarding behaviours such as nurturing and communication. When an organization develops feelings of pride, trustworthiness, and respect, as well as welcoming ideas and building good fellowship, it will encourage women to move past the glass ceiling and create a foundation that can reduce stress and mental health issues in the workplace.

Making sure your organization has the tools in place to foster understanding and equality can make all the difference to female employees.  Checking in with them to see what more your company can do to retain happy, healthy staff is vital to their overall well-being.

Are you giving the women in your workplace the support they need?


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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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#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.