Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Maintaining Your Mental Health While Studying Abroad

Hand Pointing on Map Planning for Trip with Travel Stuff IllustrStudying abroad can be an exciting opportunity for any student. Many universities offer programs for students to study in a different country, providing life-changing experiences while observing different cultures. As wonderful as the opportunity to study abroad may be, it can be difficult to adjust to a different country’s cultural practices. Loneliness, and even depression, can be common when you are away from the people and places that are familiar to you.

While you are studying abroad, you may find that making your mental health a priority becomes increasingly important. I’ve seen many students become withdrawn, and even depressed, from the lack of socialization and familiarity that comes with being away from home. However, try not to let this dissuade you from seizing the adventure of a lifetime. Here are some tips for maintaining your mental health while you’re studying abroad:

Stay in touch

One of the greatest advantages of modern technology is the ability to stay in touch with the people we care about. Apps like Skype and FaceTime allow you to have a face-to-face conversation with the people you love from anywhere in the world. In combination with social media, texting apps (e.g. WhatsApp), and email, there are more ways to stay in touch than ever.

A feeling of connection, especially with friends and family, is an essential part of a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. If you’re having difficulty adjusting to your life abroad, set aside some time per day when you can Skype or FaceTime someone special from home. That simple connection can make all the difference in the sensations of loneliness and isolation that can come from being away from the people and places you love.

Explore the local culture

While you’re away, try to take some time to enjoy all of the excitement that another culture has to offer. Many of the countries available for international exchange are rich in history, and filled with experiences that will become truly unforgettable, if you allow yourself to become surrounded by their vibrant possibilities. Visit a museum or an art gallery, take a walk through a historical park, and of course, don’t forget to enjoy the exquisite culinary experiences offered by your host country.

Although you may be far away from your friends and family, socialization is an essential part of your physical and mental health, particularly when you’re overseas. Make an effort to connect with other people in your school program and explore your host country together. In addition to studying together, you could visit local street festivals or exhibits together or discover a new favourite café. You may even develop some lifelong friendships over the course of your studies!

Use SAP International services

International students might have different mental health needs, depending on their previous experiences with distance travel and their approach towards cultural change. Each person’s experience abroad is going to be unique, and there will be times when you may need support. Student Assistance Programs are available to help international students in need of mental health services. Additional support while you are studying overseas can make a world a difference.

Don’t be afraid to reach out to a Student Assistance Program provider at any time. Help is always available.

Although studying abroad presents some challenges for a lot of students in terms of adjustment, it can be also a rewarding experience that offers opportunities for your future education and employment. Knowing that SAP services are always available to you, should you need them, you can fully enjoy every moment and unique cultural experience that your host country can provide.


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Good Grades vs. Social Life – You Can Have Both!

image-from-rawpixel-id-401332-jpegDo you ever feel like you’re performing a juggling act, trying to meet all of your needs and wants at the same time? With work, school, friends, and family, just one more time commitment thrown into the mix might make it all come crashing down.

I’ve seen firsthand just how busy and chaotic the lives of students can be, resulting in inner turmoil and loneliness. And I understand that it may sometimes feel like you have no choice but to let either your grades slip or social life dwindle, especially in 1st year when everything you experience is new! However, there are some ways you can keep both:

Organize Study Groups

Whether you’re taking online or in-person courses, there are many options to host or attend effective study groups. Most libraries allow students to book private rooms, or you can meet at somebody’s house or a common area on campus. For online study groups, consider creating a Facebook group that’s only accessible to people that are invited. Study groups are great opportunities to focus on course material and provide opportunities for socializing for the following reasons:

  • Never Miss a Class. In case you ever need to miss a class due to illness or personal reasons, your study group will always be available to share their notes with you.
    • Pro Tip: Consider enrolling in a course with a friend! Most, if not all, post-secondary programs require a certain number of elective courses. So even if you and your friend are enrolled in different programs, you can still spend quality time with them in the classroom or lecture hall.
  • Mingle Afterwards. Once the group has covered the relevant material for the week, why not suggest that you all hang out afterwards for a meal, movie, or board game? This approach will allow you to effectively use your time for both school and pleasure!

Join Program-Specific Clubs

Most post-secondary schools have dozens or even hundreds of clubs or other extra-curriculars you can join. Some might be purely for fun, and others might be more applicable to your studies. If you don’t find a club that interests you, start your own! These are great ways to feel like a part of the school community while also improving your academics for the following reasons:

  • Build Your Resume. If you join a student organization or club that has elected positions, such as president or treasurer, holding such titles can look impressive to some employers. Even just being a regular member shows that you have passion.
  • Explore Off Campus. Many clubs organize field trips or social gatherings outside of their regularly scheduled meetings on campus. These might fulfill your social needs more than study groups.

Set a Schedule

For non-campus activities like going to the movies, out to dinner, or out on the town with friends, you may want to create an online calendar you can access from your computer and phone. Outlook and Google Calendar are just a few options available. This way you can always keep track of your responsibilities and time commitments, including projects, study times, club meetings, and social gatherings. Glancing at your calendar is also a quick and easy way to ensure you don’t overcommit and overwhelm yourself.

You can also free up more time throughout the school year by taking a couple of courses during the summer. If your typical course load during the spring and fall is five courses each, you can decrease it to four by taking two summer courses. Schools that offer summer classes allow you the option to spread out and dilute the stress – and increase the enjoyment – of your program.

If you need a little extra help finding a balance between your social life and academics and learning how you can incorporate both into your everyday routine, contact your Student Assistance Program provider.


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Surviving the Opioid Crisis

medications-cure-tablets-pharmacy-51004It wasn’t too long ago that I spoke of the rising risk fentanyl posed to society. Fast-forward nearly two years later, and the opioid crisis we’re facing seems to only be getting worse, not better.

In 2015, one in nine deaths of Ontario youth aged 15 to 24 years were related to opioids. Since then, several hundred more have been reported. It is for these reasons that I encourage you to learn about the effects of opioids and the resources available to you and loved ones experiencing an opioid dependency.

What Are Opioids?
Opioids are medications that are most often prescribed by physicians to treat pain. Examples include morphine, oxycodone, and heroin. Like most pain relievers, opioids cause strong feelings of relaxation. This feeling can become highly addictive, and if opioids are taken in excess, users feel “high” and are at risk of overdosing.

What is the Opioid Crisis?

The primary opioid responsible for the crisis is fentanyl. Fentanyl is up to 100 times stronger, and therefore more addictive and dangerous, than morphine. Due to its addictive nature, it is often added without users’ knowledge to various street drugs. Such drugs are already highly addictive and dangerous, and unprescribed consumption of fentanyl drastically increases users’ chances of overdosing. Between January and September 2017, at least 2,923 deaths related to opioid overdoses occurred in Canada, 66% of which involved fentanyl.

What Are the Symptoms of Opioid Use?

Different opioids can produce different symptoms, but the general symptoms of opioids include the following:

  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Liver damage
  • Infertility

The largest concern around opioid use is the high risk of overdose. For signs and symptoms of an overdose, visit our International Overdose Awareness Day blog.

What Resources Are Available to Combat the Crisis?

There are many safety precautions you and your loved ones can take to prevent overdosing on opioids, including the following:

  • Stay Informed: The Government of Canada has created a life-saving Opioids Toolkit to help you stay in the know.
  • Use Supervised Consumption Sites: Ideally, there wouldn’t be any illegal use of drugs, but supervised consumption sites provide safe spaces to use illegal drugs without fear of prosecution.
  • Acquire a Naloxone Kit: If you or someone you know is overdosing on opioids, administer naloxone to temporarily stop the overdose, and then call 911. Some provinces provide naloxone kits for free.

If you witness someone overdose or if you believe you are experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately. Even if you are unsure if what are witnessing or experiencing is an overdose, the safest option is to call 911.

If you or someone you know is using opioids ­– or any other recreational drug – and you fear for your and someone else’s safety, contact your health care provider, Aspiria’s Student Assistance Program services, or your school’s counselling services.


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Home for the Summer: A Guide to Living with Your Family, Again

271-ted72544532-ae-id-384598-jpegCongratulations, you survived exam season and a full year of school!

By now, you may have moved back in with your family for the summer. For some, this may be exciting, but for others, you may cringe at the thought of having to spend the entire summer living at home. It can be highly stressful sacrificing some aspects of your independence, especially if you’ve been calling the shots while away at school.

Regardless of your enthusiasm level for your familial situation, here are my tips on how to make the most out of living with your family again:

Maintain Your Social Circle

If your departure to school meant your parents became empty nesters while you were away, they may want to spend copious amounts of time with you while they can. However, your intentions may involve spending as much time as possible with new and old friends. With communication and empathy from both sides, everyone can understand each other’s social needs. To avoid feelings of isolation during the summer, try to stay in contact with whom you can, and remember to join in on family dinners and outings once in a while so as not to make your family feel isolated from you.

Avoid Going Stir Crazy

If you really need a break from your family and some time in the sun, take a road trip to meet your friends. Spending time outdoors, like at the beach or in a campground, is a great way to reduce stress. Prolonged time in cities can fatigue the brain, and time in nature allows it to rest. Having fun or relaxing outside throughout the summer can give your mind a much-needed break before returning to the grind of studies.

Help Around the House

A giant bonus of living with family is home-cooked meals, but you may want to consider cooking for your family once in a while. Cooking can be quite effective at combatting negative emotions, and testing out healthy recipes can be especially beneficial for your mental and physical health.

If you really want to get in your parents’ good books, sweep, vacuum, or dust when you have a moment. Cleaning not only benefits the household, but it can also directly affect your own mental and physical health. Simply making your bed every morning makes you 19 per cent more likely to get a good night’s sleep.

Even when everyone may mean well, hurtful things can be thought of, said to, or done between family members. If you are having difficulty adjusting to being home for the summer, please seek counselling and stay strong knowing that this living situation is only temporary.


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Exam Season: 3 Tips to Lower Your Body’s Stress Level

k-67-dsc045553442545-fon_1-id-68958-jpegAs I’m sure you’re all aware, exam season has commenced. I know from experience that in times of high stress and when exam dates loom, it’s tempting to forgo sleep and easy to forget to eat or hydrate. These are very unhealthy means of studying, and they only add to your stress.

To avoid high stress levels or illness this exam season, I would like to provide you with three tips to take care of your body and reduce your stress level when preparing for exams:

  1. Eat and Drink
    It’s one thing to eat and drink healthily on a regular basis, but during exam season, some students remain so focused on their studies that they forget to eat or drink something at all! Understandably, your focus is your studies, but I implore you to stay hydrated and fed.

    During periods of high stress, I sometimes set hourly alarms on my phone to remind myself to drink water. This may seem silly, but it’s easy to get lost in your head, especially while studying, and ignore what your body needs.

    As for what you eat, it may seem like you don’t have time to cook. You probably don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on take out over the next couple weeks, but you need to eat something. Before exam season is in full swing, pick up a few key items at the grocery store for simple meals, like cereal, salad, and sandwiches. Be sure you are incorporating some nutritious foods such as vegetables and protein. And always keep snacks in your bag, like apples or granola bars, in case you accidently skip a meal.

  2. Exercise
    I’m sure you’ve heard that exercise releases delightful hormones called endorphins, which trigger positive feelings to reduce stress and pain. Luckily, a simple 10-minute walk could be enough to produce several hours of stress relief.

    If you’re an extrovert and hours of secluded studying is worsening your stress, attend a group exercise lesson at your campus or preferred gym. Not only will you be getting exercise, but you’ll also benefit from the additional aspect of socialization, giving you a much-needed break between study sessions.

  3. Rest
    This might be the most difficult tip to follow, since it’s sort of a catch-22. Six to eight hours for a good night’s rest is a lot of time, but the longer you go without sleep in order to study the less you are likely to retain the information. Research shows that recalling information from one day to the next is easier after a night of sleep. However difficult it may be to rationalize, it is important to find a balance between study time and sleep time. You don’t want all of your efforts to be wasted by falling asleep during an exam.

It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this; all of your fellow students are going through the exact same crazy time. Reach out to your friends and help each other stay sane and healthy during this and future exam seasons. If you require more structured support, reach out to a school counsellor or your Student Assistance Program to assist you with a study plan or exam accommodations. Good luck!


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Future Leaders Deserve Greater Access to Mental Health Resources

Helping HandThis month, a student from Guelph University in Ontario, live-streamed his attempted suicide on the Internet to a chat room of viewers. The student was rescued by emergency services and survived his injuries, however, this episode raises extremely concerning questions about the apparent hopelessness and desperation that is leading young people to believe suicide is their only option.

Since no two suicidal circumstances are the same, the reasons for someone reaching this unfortunate conclusion vary from person to person. The university and college demographic share some overarching qualities that could contribute to a pattern of poor coping skills in this age group, including but not limited to:

  • Family and self-imposed academic expectations are unrealistically high
  • Difficult transition from living at home to living on their own
  • Inability to cope with exam pressure
  • Financial debt and student loans
  • Career and future economic success not guaranteed

While the reasons surrounding this Guelph student’s attempt are not publicly known, this case speaks to a much larger issue facing young Canadians, and the statistics in recent years are quite alarming:

  • Worldwide, youth suicides has tripled since 1950 for the 15-24 age group
  • In Canada, suicide is the 2nd highest cause of death for youth ages 19-24
  • In Canada, 300 youths die every year by suicide
  •  For every successful suicide, there are 400 attempts
  • New research shows that students are more likely to have suicidal ideation if they went to school with someone who died by suicide
  • Eight out of ten youth who attempt or die by suicide hint of their plans beforehand, often to a friend.*

This last statistic is a call to action for many of the resources available on campuses – If someone is able to pick up on a suicidal person’s cues and  learn of their intentions, there is a chance the suicide could be prevented, especially if professional help is quickly accessible. Most universities and colleges are equipped with Student Health Services, Professional Counsellors, Peer Networks, Student Support Associations and Community Resources.

These services offer quality assistance to those in need and have helped countless students overcome their personal obstacles, but the question remains: are they enough? Unfortunately, most of these services are only available during the school year and during working hours, which leaves students with limited options after hours, on weekends and during the summer months. The wait for students to see counsellors has increased, on average, to three-weeks and with campus resources working at their maximum capacity already, the demand for service is not being met sufficiently with existing internal resources.

What can you do to better meet the needs of your students? A Student Assistance Program is an opportunity to fill any gaps in the current internal student support systems by offering increased accessibility to a breadth of expert mental health services. Offering a preventative Student Assistance Program can provide students with access to psychological counselling before a full-blown crisis occurs.  A Student Assistance Program can also provide auxiliary services for legal, financial, nutrition, and lifestyle issues which can help mitigate the deleterious impact on the psychological well being of the student. Success in this endeavour has been demonstrated with collaboration between internal campus resources and external professional services by offering mental health resources that complement and augment existing internal resources. Implementing a fiscally responsible Student Assistance Program gives the gift of choice to your students, allowing them to take advantage of both campus and external mental health services around the clock. University and College stakeholders can rest easier knowing they are providing students more comprehensive care.

Don’t our future leaders deserve greater access, choice and expertise to support them through their mental health journey?

Have you implemented an SAP into your institution to complement services that already exist? What benefits have you seen with an SAP? I look forward to your thoughts below!

(* Statistics courtesy of Stats Canada, Canadian Mental Health Association and Canadian Medical Association Journal)