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On being present and aware

Angelique Benois instructs youth in custody in mindfulness techniques that help manage the chaos and trauma in their lives

Apr 01, 2015, By: Leah Geller
Angelique Benois
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“These youth are affected by stress much more than someone in a healthy place,” Benois says. “I help them find positive ways to deal with it.”

Solomon* was having a terrible time sleeping and would sometimes explode with anger. As Angelique Benois does with all her clients at the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre, she worked with Solomon one on one, introducing him to mindfulness techniques that could help him manage his feelings and reactions.

RMYC is a large custody facility on the outskirts of Brampton, Ont. It currently houses 96 male youth who have been charged with or convicted of serious offences at an age ranging from 12 to 17. Benois is the centre’s mental health nurse. “Many of these kids have insomnia, often as a result of trauma and abuse. Confinement itself and the lighting and noise in the facility add to the sleep issues. Out in the community, they might have managed the problem with illicit substances or sleep medication prescribed for another person.”

Benois has practised mindfulness for some time but saw its greater potential while she was pursuing yoga certification in India about seven years ago. This experience was a powerful one, and she resolved to share what she has learned with clients and colleagues.

At RMYC, those with sleep problems are referred to her, or they request her services. She meets with clients for seven or eight weekly sessions. “With Solomon,” Benois says, “I started with abdominal breathing, encouraging him to observe his breathing and be comfortable with being quiet, as much as possible. Next, I had him practise tensing and relaxing his muscles, so he could start to become aware of where he holds his stress. Later on, we began visualization and meditation. I saw the growth in his confidence and in his hopes for the future. In one of our final sessions, Solomon told me he had reacted to being insulted by another youth by going to his room and practising his breathing exercises. He was so proud of that.”

Benois has always been interested in how the human mind works. She studied psychology before deciding to become an RN and began her nursing career at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital in the psychiatric unit. She also did occasional shifts at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, providing care to women on a locked inpatient psychiatric unit. She completed a master’s degree in nursing with a specialization in mental health and received an Advanced Clinical Practice Fellowship from RNAO to assist her in continuing postgraduate study in psychiatric nursing.

In 2006, Benois moved to Auckland to start a “life-changing” job as a psychiatric community nurse on an interprofessional team that integrated spiritual health into all its services. She returned to Canada a year later (“being so far away from family was dificult”) to work for Grey Bruce Health Services in Owen Sound, Ont. “This rural setting provided the challenge I needed, and I had an opportunity to work with young clients and carve out an advanced practice role.”

Benois started at RMYC in 2010, becoming the first mental health nurse in Ontario to work in a youth custody facility. “These youth are misunderstood and negatively judged,” she says. “I wanted to play a positive role in their lives, even if it was in a small way.” She consulted mental health nurses in adult correctional facilities for guidance on setting up programs to meet the needs of her clients and began collaborating with social workers, psychologists, nurses and the psychiatrist on the team to provide support and holistic care to each youth.

Building partnerships with mental health court workers was a crucial first step. With the information this group now shares with her, she can alert staff to circumstances that might lead a youth to behave in a way that could be misinterpreted as noncompliance.

“I try to connect all the pieces,” she adds. “For example, when a youth presents with a mental illness, we first need to determine whether there’s an organic cause or a specific trigger. I might make a referral to the psychiatrist, but I’ll also do some research on the family history.”

Benois says she would like to expand on opportunities to educate the officers and other staff about mental wellness and the benefits of mindfulness training. “It would be wonderful if everyone working here could become role models in dealing with stress positively and being mindful.”

*Name has been changed

10 questions with Angelique Benois

What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

What are you most proud of having accomplished?
Developing new nursing roles and knowing I was the driving force behind them

What is one thing about you that people would be surprised to learn
The number of exotic places I’ve travelled to

“If I had more free time, I would...”
Nap. My daughter is two, and I have about two years of sleep to catch up on

What is your biggest regret?
Not continuing to practise Spanish when I came back from living in Costa Rica

What was the last good book you read?
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

Who inspired you to become a nurse?
My parents. My mom is a retired nurse, and my dad always talked up the benefits of the nursing profession

What was the best piece of career advice you’ve received?
Nobody can take your knowledge from you, so keep learning

What do you like least about being a nurse?
The relatively low salary, when you consider the impact we have and the responsibilities of the role

Name one change you would like to make to the health system.
I’d reduce fragmentation in health-care services

Leah Geller is a freelance health and science writer in Ottawa.