Reaching Beyond PTSD

More details about PTSD are coming to light, thanks to public awareness and treatment options

It was more of a mounting tension than a wave of grief that first sent Staff Sergeant Ron Campbell into shock. For 24 years, Ron worked in various departments

of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Edmonton.

An expert in crisis negotiating and mediation, Ron was no stranger to high-stress and often violent situations.

I was doing everything I could to sabotage my marriage, so that if I was gone she wouldn’t care. – RCMP Staff Sergeant Ron Campbell

“Police officers are notorious avoiders, we internalize everything,” Ron says. Throughout his career he had been present for shocking and violent incidents, many of which he says didn’t faze him. “Some incidents that we deal with in our careers are like silk, but some are like Velcro and they stick,” he says. Ron’s Velcro moment came in February 2004, when his team responded to a call about an armed-and-barricaded man in Spruce Grove. Acting as negotiator, Ron watched as one of his colleagues was shot and killed. “It hit hard,” says Ron, who had worked with that colleague for 19 years. “My behaviour started to change, and not in a positive way.”

The incident triggered post-traumatic stress disorder in Ron. PTSD is a mental illness that allows traumatic events of the past to leave a mark on the present day. Many people who have witnessed or experienced trauma are at risk of mental illness, and the symptoms are all-encompassing: sleep disturbances, concentration problems, feelings of emotional numbness, depression and a lack of trust in others all characterize PTSD. Sufferers can experience flashbacks and nightmares, and often try to avoid all reminders of the trauma they have experienced. Once, when Ron was reading a newspaper story about a truck crash west of Edmonton, he flashed back to a similar accident that he had responded to 22 years earlier. He burst into tears at the kitchen table.

Ron was finally pushed to seek help for his PTSD when a colleague “looked me in the eye and asked, ‘How are you really doing?’ The air went out of me. I was so busted.” Three weeks later, he called a therapist, who he saw until the doctor retired. But Ron’s journey had only just begun – between 2004 and 2009 he was on an emotional roller coaster, experiencing suicidal thoughts. “I was doing everything I could to sabotage my marriage, so that if I was gone she wouldn’t care,” Ron says. Finally, his family staged an intervention and he called another therapist, this time one who specialized in trauma treatment. “He put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and probably saved my life.”

Now, Ron is committed to talking about PTSD and mental illness any chance he gets. “We can be productive, we’re not broken toys,” he says. “We need to stop stigmatizing.” He also speaks to groups about how PTSD affects people in all walks of life. Stories like Ron’s influence how United Way is tackling the repercussions of PTSD in the community.

Lule Begashaw, a psychotherapist and team leader at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, helps new Canadians find their way in an unfamiliar city and country, often after traumatic events have forced them to leave their homes elsewhere. The centre provides resources that connect new Canadians with help, and its work can be complicated by previously-undiagnosed PTSD among the client base.

While Lule and her team have become familiar with providing counselling services for survivors of torture and trauma that seek help from the centre, those in the public who are aware of PTSD see it as a condition suffered by soldiers or police, like Ron. We don’t often think of immigrants as suffering from it. But refugees and immigrants have fled from backgrounds that include war, impoverishment and being forced to flee their homes – situations that can trigger PTSD.

Lule says there hasn’t been an increase in the number of people being treated for PTSD at the centre, just more of a general awareness in the public’s knowledge of it. “The problem has always been there,” she says. “But it hasn’t been recognized, especially with funders.” Because more people talk openly about PTSD now, supporters of the centre are more aware of how their money can help. Recently, the centre was able to hire more counselling staff. “I think the funders and government are really opening up to provide money for this type of thing,” she says. “The awareness has increased, not the issue.”

As was the case with Ron, some Mennonite Centre clients aren’t aware that they could be suffering from PTSD. “The referrals often don’t come directly for PTSD counselling, but usually through a concern about parenting or school performance. So it shows in different ways,” says Lule. “We were targeting the survivors of torture, the victims. But we started to see that families were also affected indirectly.”

The centre receives many referrals from local hospitals, clinics and government agencies. It is one of four centres in Canada that provides specialized PTSD services. One of its employees is the Canadian president for the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, which has been campaigning for PTSD treatment as a universal human right. “They are calling out for governments that sponsor refugees to open up and make PTSD treatment a human rights service, rather than something extra, or a luxury,” says Lule. Often, mental health services aren’t covered by government insurance plans, and sufferers can’t afford to seek out treatment through a psychologist, leaving places like the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers stretched thin.

Poverty is often tied to a newcomer’s experience, and can be inextricably linked to challenges in mental health services. “Poverty takes away your power, your ability to take control of your life, and it’s a feeling of helplessness,” says Lule. “Especially when new immigrants come to Canada and they have to start from the beginning – this can trigger PTSD symptoms. And some people find themselves homeless. Lack of stability affects their ability to recover. In order to build people up, it requires a lot.”

You can find PTSD among other groups of people you wouldn’t expect, populations untouched by war or hard police work. Dr. Meredith Evans sees it every day in her work as a registered clinical psychologist in Edmonton. She treats PTSD among her trauma patients primarily with cognitive-behavioural approaches. Meredith got her start treating trauma as a volunteer at the sexual assault centre at the University of Alberta during her undergraduate degree, and was interested in helping victims through their recovery.

“I could see such a change after treatment,” she says.

“You can witness such resilience; it’s amazing to focus on that aspect.”

She says the treatment of PTSD currently focuses on three evidence-based approaches, all of which share an exposure-based philosophy. This means that patients are encouraged to expose themselves to the trauma and think about the reminders. This might mean something like watching a war movie, or working towards stepping into a tank or piece of machinery again. “It’s hard,” she says. “I know it works, but it’s not easy. It’s the Buckley’s treatment – it tastes awful, but it works.”

Though he was not a patient of Meredith, Ron’s treatment was likewise arduous. It slowly brought him back from the brink, and has led him to speak at international conferences about trauma. He still sees a therapist a few times per year, but now he considers himself a survivor. He knows he’s lucky to have found the support he needed, and he wants to see that help broadly available among more marginalized populations. “The only difference between a broken leg and a broken spirit is that one has a cast,” he says. “This is a community problem, not an occupationally-specific one.”

How to Help

If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from PTSD, call 211 to learn about resources available.

Talk to your doctor: A family physician can fill out a PTSD assessment form and can point you towards finding the right mental health professional for your needs.

Psychology Today: You can find information for local psychiatrists by visiting the Psychology Today website, which keeps a detailed list of mental health supports.

Veterans: If you’re a veteran, Veteran Affairs Canada has more information, a crisis hotline and an assistance services centre.

WCB: If your PTSD, or that of your loved one, has been caused through a work situation, the Workers’ Compensation Board might be able to help.

New Canadians: New Canadians can find assistance with mental health disorders (like PTSD) and other social services through non-profit organizations including the Mennonite Centre for Newcomers. Some schools can also be of assistance.