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Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after someone has experienced trauma. Anyone, and at any age, can develop PTSD although certain groups of people (active military personnel/veterans, emergency care workers, women, Indigenous people who attended residential schools, refugees, etc.) are at a higher risk because of their occupation or life experience.
What is trauma? A distressing or disturbing experience. This can include: sexual assault, physical violence, abuse, an accident, war, natural disaster etc. The source of the trauma could be a sudden one-time event or something that happened over time. It is important to note that even being witness to something distressing or disturbing can cause trauma.
Not all people who experience trauma will develop PTSD, but about 8% of the population will experience PTSD in their lifetime. PTSD is treatable.
It is not:
- The result of any actions or personal failures of the individual.
- A sign or result of low intelligence or weakness.
- Limited to military personnel.
Like all mental health issues, PTSD is complicated. It is caused/triggered by trauma, but not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD; in fact, only about 15% of people who encounter trauma experience long-term effects, and even fewer meet criteria for PTSD. It’s tricky to figure out why some people get PTSD while others don’t. Everyone has a different “story” and these differences, like personality, emotional makeup, life experience, biological response to stress, etc., may all influence whether or not someone will develop PTSD.
“Why some people develop the disorder and others don’t is complex and has to do with many factors that are as unique and difficult to figure out as people are.” - CMHA
Below is a list of signs and symptoms for PTSD. You might notice that many of these signs or symptoms could be explained by any number of issues, not just PTSD.
- Recurring thoughts or ‘flashbacks’ of the trauma (reliving the event in vivid detail, or re-experiencing a sight, sound, smell or taste associated with the event).
- Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits.
- Feeling extremely afraid or anxious, especially if something reminds you of the trauma.
- Feeling “on edge,” being easily startled or becoming overly alert.
- Crying for no reason, feeling despair and hopelessness or other symptoms of depression.
- Memory problems including finding it difficult to remember parts of the trauma.
- Feeling scattered and unable to focus on work or daily activities.
- Difficulty making decisions.
- Irritability or agitation.
- Anger or resentment.
- Emotional numbness or withdrawal.
- Sudden overprotectiveness and fear for the safety of loved ones.
- Avoiding activities, places or even people that remind you of the event.
- Other physical health problems like dizziness, stomach upset or less ability to fight off sickness or infection.
- Substance use/abuse can also accompany PTSD, as well as depression.
- Thoughts of suicide.
Post traumatic stress disorder is treatable. For PTSD or any other mental health concern, if signs or symptoms are interfering with your life in any way, it’s time to seek help.
For instance, if sleep patterns, eating, relationships, school, work, or enjoyment of life is being affected, it’s a good idea to talk to someone. That someone could be a friend you trust, a teacher, your family doctor, a crisis line, or counselor.
If it is a friend you are concerned about, they may resist help or not even recognize that they need it. They might need you to make the first step.
As always, if you feel like your friend might hurt him/herself or someone else, it’s time to call emergency services.
In the case of PTSD, getting help will likely include dealing with the trauma that triggered the illness in the first place. People with PTSD may develop substance use/abuse issues, and can also be at a higher risk for suicide.
Visit the Help Section to find out how to get help for yourself or a friend.
Like other mental health issues, PTSD and how it is experienced will differ from person to person. Because each case is unique, the treatment will likely be unique for each individual.
PTSD can be treated with specific types of therapy, like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT is a form of talk therapy that helps you understand and cope with harmful thoughts, feelings and behaviours as they happen) and support groups (a group where you can connect with others going through similar situations and support one another). Sometimes medication can be helpful to manage some of the symptoms, like nightmares, anxiety or depression. Sometimes someone who has a mental illness may need to spend time in a hospital or treatment centre.
Family members of someone who has PTSD may participate in therapy, support groups or benefit from learning about it and ways to support their loved one at home.
Every story is different, and sometimes people need to try different types of supports before they find the right plan for them.
A person living with post traumatic stress disorder, like any other person, will benefit from maintaining wellness and having good supports in their life.
Post traumatic stress disorder is a familiar term for many, as it appears in both news and entertainment media more frequently than some other mental health issues. Talking about it is a good thing, but sometimes the way we are exposed to mental illnesses in the media leads to the development of myths or misinformation. Some common myths about PTSD are:
Myth: People with PTSD end up on the streets and homeless.
Fact: While many in Canada’s homeless population have mental health concerns, most people who live with PTSD and other illnesses have families, friends, homes, jobs, volunteer positions, etc. With support and treatment, people can learn to live productive lives.
Myth: People with mental illnesses like PTSD are unpredictable and violent.
Fact: Statistically, people living with mental illnesses are actually more likely to be victims of violence.
Myth: PTSD mostly affects military workers who have been in combat.
Fact: Experiencing or even witnessing any type of trauma, not just war, can cause PTSD. Survivors of natural disasters, sexual or physical violence, abuse, car accidents etc., are all at risk for developing PTSD.
Myth: Lots of people experience trauma and seem fine. People who get PTSD are weak or need to get over it.
Fact: Not all people who experience trauma will develop PTSD, but those who do likely have many other factors at play that lead to its development. Your biological response to stress (how your brain releases hormones in stressful situations), previous life experience, emotional makeup, etc., could all factor in. “Weakness” has nothing to do with it. Telling someone to “get over” a mental illness is misinformed and unhelpful.
Myth: PTSD is sudden and will develop immediately after a traumatic event has happened.
Fact: The symptoms of PTSD might appear very shortly after a traumatic event has happened, or they might not appear for months or even years later. Symptoms may come and go, and for others they might be there constantly but are not recognized as PTSD for a long time.
Supporting someone with any type of serious illness can be challenging. Ways to help and support a friend or loved one who is living with post traumatic stress disorder :
- Know the signs and symptoms of PTSD and other anxiety disorders.
- Encourage professional help for your friend when needed (see Help Section).
- If your friend is in the hospital, go and visit them if you are able. The hospital may be scary and overwhelming for them and a friendly face can help. Make sure to ask about visitor rules first.
- Help your friend to avoid triggers like substances or situations that can be harmful or cause them distress.
- Treatment is a process. Medications and therapy can take time to help. Be aware of this and try to be supportive as your friend adjusts.
- Be a sounding board. Listening without judgement and without trying to “fix” their problems can be incredibly helpful.
- Ask your friend how else you can help. It may be as easy as just providing a distraction, asking them to do simple, relaxing things with you (like hanging out, watching a movie etc.).
- Set some boundaries for yourself, and take care. You can’t help someone if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself.
See the Help Section for more info about helping a friend and self care.
A blog written by a young person, talking about their diagnosis of PTSD
A blog written by a young person What does post traumatic stress disorder feel like
Three-part interview with Theo Fleury, a former NHL player who was diagnosed with depression and PTSD.
A young artist uses her work as part of her healing process, Erin’s Mixed Media Art
The information on this page is a simple overview of a complicated health issue. The content has been taken from CAMH, CMHA, the PTSD Association of Canada, and Mood Disorders Society of Canada. For more in-depth information, please visit these sources or speak to a medical professional.
Ontario – call ConnexOntario to find out where there are mental health supports in your community.
Crisis – in any situation where someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911 or a local crisis line.
Please see the Help Section for more information and resources.
Facts about mental health issues and illnesses. It is not meant to replace a doctor’s advice. Please consult a medical professional.