Charles Benayon

Founder & CEO of Aspiria


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Creating A Mental Health Journey With The Arts

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In Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) created an initiative to offer free passes to mental health clients and professionals. The goal was to connect those with mental health issues through art, offering a unique space where they could feel safe and supported by like-minded people. This program is incredibly inspiring – I’d love to see more like it!

I talked about how creativity can positively enhance students’ mental wellbeing during exams, but I’d like to go a bit more in-depth into the mental health benefits of creativity. I’ve seen firsthand the incredibly positive results that the arts can have on people suffering from mental health issues, especially in the student community. This form of therapy is becoming an increasingly popular way for students suffering from mental health issues such as severe anxiety and PTSD to express their creativity on their healing journey.

Here are some of the biggest ways that I’ve seen the arts transform the lives of students struggling with mental health issues:

A new type of safe space

The concept of safe space has been a topic of conversation on many university campuses over the past few years. Despite many debates as to the validity of maintaining safe spaces, I’ve found that they can be very beneficial for several communities, particularly for marginalized students. In the mental health community, safe space takes on additional significance, as many students with mental health concerns may find it difficult to be in public places.

Art galleries and other artistic venues offer a calming, safe atmosphere where students can enjoy a public space with individuals experiencing the same mental health challenges. I’ve often seen these venues become a supportive environment where students are encouraged to connect with others through the healing power of the arts.

An expanding community

To the same point, I’ve seen many students feel so burdened by the prospect of socializing in a group that they can feel unable to leave the comfort of their own home. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety are enough to make it difficult for some people to leave their homes, but the additional stigma related to mental illness can make it unbearable to be in groups. Programs that connect students through artistic venues can offer a sense of community in times where they may feel particularly isolated.

I personally recommend programs that expand mental health communities through the arts because the stigma against mental health is not as prevalent in these communities. There is a strong indication that many artistic groups work to support those suffering from mental health challenges, offering opportunities for self-expression through the healing journey.

Art and its role in personal wellbeing

Creative energy and emotional wellbeing have been linked in several studies, indicating that participation in the arts can improve a person’s quality of life. In the student community, I’ve seen an overall increase in the level of positivity, coupled with a decrease in symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety and depression. In fact, a study revealed that 71% of participants felt a decrease in anxiety, with 76% claiming that they felt an increase in their sense of overall wellbeing.

To me, this is a strong indication that there is a correlation between creative pursuits and combatting mental health issues. With such encouraging statistics, and an increasing trend towards students with mental health issues becoming engaged in the arts, I look forward to seeing more programs like this place in other communities.

My hope is that in the future, programs, such as the AGO’s, will be increasingly available. The demand is there, and in conjunction with your Student Assistance Program, the journey towards better mental health and wellbeing is within your reach.

 

 

 

 

 


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Going Viral: The Consequences of Video Sharing

action-adult-blur-1632182In November of 2018, Susan Westwood accosted two African American women in the parking lot of their apartment complex. A video shows Westwood hurling racial insults and accusing the two women of “not belonging there.”

The video went viral, resulting in Westwood being served with four misdemeanour charges, including uttering threats and assault. Although this can be seen as a positive end to a troubling situation, the video is proof that viral video sharing isn’t without its consequences.

In 2019, viral videos have the power to ruin someone’s life or reputation. I’ve seen the negative effects, including depression, severe anxiety, and even suicide, that these videos can have on a person’s mental health.

The end of privacy 

I’ve found that one of the greatest risks in video sharing lies in the potential to track down private information. “Doxing” is a term that refers to the hacking and sharing of information, such as a person’s name, location, and credit card number. Once this information is shared online, anyone can access it.

I’ve also found that the subjects of these viral videos can sometimes feel as though their safety is at risk. Public shaming in online forums is relatively common, but in extreme cases, people may experience death threats. This can even happen to minors, as is the case in the recent headlines involving the boys at Covington Catholic High School. 

In many cases, these violations of privacy can lead to online bullying. Regardless of the video that is posted, it’s important to remain aware of the legal ramifications of publicly sharing private information and the long-term effects of online harassment. Cyber bullying has been strongly linked to an increased likelihood of developing mental health issues. Additionally, young people who experience online harassment are twice as likely to self-harm.

With more videos becoming viral each day, I feel as though these violations of privacy are unlikely to cease anytime soon.

How you can protect yourself 

I’ve heard of many situations where students were filmed without their permission. Parties are infamous for students filming other students without their knowledge, often in situations that could prove damaging to the students’ mental health or reputation.

As well, I’ve heard of some people being subjected to assault as a part of “hazing” rituals and that assault being recorded. This aspect of viral video sharing is particularly disturbing as these videos can sometimes cause lasting damage to the victim of the assault, serving as a triggering reminder of the incident.

On campus, you may not always know when you’re being filmed without your permission. However, there are some steps you can take to ensure that both your privacy and safety remain intact:

  • Be aware of your surroundings, especially in social settings (e.g. a party).
  • Make sure that you keep private information off of social media.
  • If you suspect that any of your personal accounts have been hacked, change your passwords.
  • If you ever feel as though your safety is threatened, contact the authorities immediately.

Westwood may be a case of viral video sharing for the betterment of a situation, but when in the wrong hands, these videos can produce shameful, dangerous, and sometimes lethal consequences. If you want to learn more about how viral videos can impact your mental health, contact your Student Assistance Program today.

 


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Relieve the Stresses of Crunch-Time With Creativity!

painting-911804_1920With final projects and exams approaching, it’s important to find healthy ways to relieve stress. Research has shown that creative hobbies can help maintain a level of relaxation, personal enrichment, and productivity up until the last project or paper is submitted.

I’ve found that creative hobbies provide the perfect outlet to de-stress and decompress. Here are some creative forms of expression that have multiple mental health benefits to offer you peace of mind during busy periods at school:

Visual Arts 

Painting and drawing are two of the most relaxing hobbies that you can take up. There’s no way to get it wrong, so you can feel completely at ease with creating anything that fits your imagination. Conversely, photography can be a way of enjoying the visual arts by allowing your creative passions to be channelled into capturing inspiring images on camera. Best of all, with the accessibility of smartphone technology and online purchasing, these forms of creative expression are incredibly cost-effective.

Crafting

Arts and crafts are hugely popular right now – even with adults. This can encompass anything and everything with supplies that range from items purchased at an art supply store, to things that you discover in your own backyard. As an additional bonus, there’s evidence that engaging in forms of “play” (e.g. fun things you enjoyed doing as a child), has an incredibly positive effect on your health and wellness.

Music

Music can enhance the creative brain in a powerful way, both by listening and playing it. Community dance classes are an exciting and challenging way of expressing yourself through movement, as well as being a fun form of exercise. Playing an instrument, or even listening to music on your iPod are also ways of experiencing the psychological and emotional benefits of having music enhance your creative energy.

Writing

Leave the academic writing at the door, pick up a pen, and try your hand at creative writing. Expressing your thoughts and feelings through poetry, storytelling, and journalling is a rewarding way of getting out any frustrations and transforming them into something positive. To really benefit from this creative medium, try writing every day, even if it’s only a few words. You may be surprised at the rewarding long-term effects.

Colour Therapy

We all remember how much fun it was to dive into a colouring book as a child, but there’s evidence supporting the theory that colour therapy can be a relaxing hobby for adults as well. Used as a “mindfulness practice”, colour therapy isn’t just an excellent way of reducing stress; it can also serve as a form of meditation. As a huge bonus, you’ll get the same benefits as you would by sitting in meditative stillness, such as improved focus, memory, and restfulness.

For more expert tips to get through the rest of exam season, contact your Student Assistance Program provider to address any concerns and discuss available options. 

 

 


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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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“I’ve Graduated – Now What?” Tips on Dealing with the Graduation Blues

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 12.38.54 PMStressful exams, excessive coffee, possible home sickness and hefty loans – post-secondary education has been quite the ride for the last few years, but hopefully has, in theory, provided you with the exciting opportunities everyone says awaits you. Many students across the globe expect to obtain a respectable, decent-paying job in their field right after graduation, but is this expectation realistic nowadays?

Undoubtedly, many soon-to-be grads are concerned about what life looks like after graduation. Remember all that support when you left high school to transition to university or college? Those transition supports aren’t so readily available and obvious now that we’re getting ready to graduate from post-secondary school. These are stressful times, with many questioning where you will live (moving back in with parents? ) and how soon can you find a career-focused job (that you like!) to pay off your student loans…and this stress can take a toll on your mental health and the ability to cope.

I’ve been working with students for several years now and have outlined below some tips to help you avoid getting the graduation blues and better enjoy the next phase in your journey:

Talk It Out – Ask your school counselling centre for some referrals to affordable supports in your community. We all need some help as we head into this new world of wonders, and there are a variety of talk therapy and behavioural counselling options out there – change is hard, but asking for help doesn’t need to be. Good friends and family members, particularly ones who have “been there”, can be great supports as well. Discussing options for your future gets things out of your head and become actionable through steps towards your goals.

Freedom is Real – Make a plan for doing something you enjoy, and allow yourself to get excited about it. After all the pressure you’ve been under, give yourself time to adjust, whether it be a trip, shopping, or visiting your friends, get busy doing nothing. Allow yourself some time to just be free and relax, and don’t just sit around dwelling on what is not getting done right away.

Do the Right Thing – So what’s the next step? Sure, it’s easy to just enroll in the Master’s program to put off leaving your safe hub, or taking an internship that pays less than nothing to get some “practical” experience. Stop putting off the inevitable, and just be true to yourself about what job you accept or whether the extra education is worth the extra debt. This is the time to check out what’s out there and not grab the easiest thing. Fear of drifting around is scary, but grabbing the first available option can exacerbate your mental health issues if it’s not the right one, so stick to your guns.

This Is Where You’re At – Accepting that university or college is coming to an end, and you don’t know what comes next, not really, is ok. Typically we spend about 16 straight years in schooling being told to some degree what we can and cannot do, so it’s no wonder we come out not knowing exactly what we are supposed to do. Accept that this is where you are. The power of now. This is a normal stage that most of us go through so allow yourself to readjust and focus on what you need to do for your next journey in the big open world.

With graduation coming up – how are you feeling? Do you have a support system in place for post-graduation? I look forward to hearing from you!


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Succeeding through the next few weeks at school

k-159-chim-5169As the school semester comes to an end, final exam preparations will soon begin for many students. This usually involves long days at the library, and perhaps, some coffee to keep you alert. The time and focus that academic success entails, combined with the intense pressure students feel in order to succeed, can lead to stress and exhaustion.

If you’re a student of an Ontario college, you may be experiencing stress caused by a different circumstance: the faculty strike you’ve just experienced. No matter what type of post-secondary educational institution you study at, this time of year can no doubt have an impact on your mental health. For this reason, I have outlined some tips to assist you prepare for the next few weeks before winter break.

For all students, whether you are preparing for final exams, or you have been affected by the Ontario college strike, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Prioritize your diet and sleep schedule. It’s always important to remember that eating healthy meals and getting plenty of sleep are proven to improve one’s mental health. During your studying, proper diet and sleep will ensure that you are alert and attentive, and this will improve the quality of your studying, mood, and hopefully your grades!
  • Go out less, but still see your friends. While it’s best to decrease the amount of social events you go to, it’s still important to spend time with friends and family. Making time for others will serve as a distraction, and a good change of pace. Even if it’s just eating a meal or walking home together, your friends will balance out the stress of exams, and really help you improve your mood.
  • Be aware of resources and help on campus. At almost every campus, there are counsellors, wellness centres, and hotlines to call. If you feel low or vulnerable, it’s important to be heard, and these resources are specifically meant for students. Lastly, remember that your grades don’t define your worth, but your mental health should always be valued.

Ultimately, the exam period before winter break will be manageable and less stressful if you stick with good habits, and reach out to friends and support when needed. You’ll find that help is always available, and if combined with hard work, you’re sure to do well on your exams. Good luck!


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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.