(January 16, 2017 – Toronto, ON) The facts are going to surprise you. Mention PTSD in almost any conversation and the immediate thought, the immediate image that will form in your brain is that of military men and women all too often in the news and all too often the news isn’t good. But the facts are, PTSD hits more civilians than soldiers, and more women than men. And it manifests with a dizzying range of symptoms, from flashbacks and nightmares to aggression and depression. Scientists are developing increasingly clear pictures of the brain activity that results in PTSD. But as they search for a sure-fire treatment, they’re still trying to understand a confounding question: When so many people experience the trauma of sudden loss, near-death, or violence, why are some more vulnerable to PTSD than others?
This Thursday, CBC’s Nature of Things will carry the compelling documentary PTSD: Beyond Trauma, which investigates the cutting edge medical and scientific research that’s seeking answers to these questions. And they are working on treatments that are helping survivors of trauma get their lives back after unimaginable horrors.
Survivors like Ute Lawrence and Stan Fisher, a couple who were trapped in the wreckage of an 87 vehicle pile-up in one of Canada’s worst car crashes. Though they walked away physically unharmed, the psychological fallout was overwhelming and reverberates to this day, 18 years after the accident. Back in 1999, they enrolled in a study led by Dr Ruth Lanius of Western University that used brain scans, revealing that peoples’ responses to trauma are as varied as the individuals themselves. For Stan, who was behind the wheel during the accident, scans show that his brain is ‘lit up’ when his PTSD is triggered, whereas Ute’s response is the opposite, with her scans clearly showing her brain activity has virtually shut down.
PTSD Beyond Trauma gets an inside look at some promising treatments to relieve survivors’ symptoms. Dr. Alain Brunet, a Clinical Psychologist at Montreal’s McGill University had developed a new treatment for PTSD and was eager to test it on those suffering PTSD after November 2015’s terror attack in Paris.
For Max Guiolet, caught in the Paris attack, the treatment, which consisted of taking Propranolol, a beta-blocker while recalling his traumatic event was the miracle he sought. The medication, which blocks the emotional strength of the memory without dulling the recollection of the event, may be able to help large numbers of people quickly and easily. Brunet claims that after just 6 sessions with the aid of this readily available drug, PTSD can be cured.
But recovery is more complicated for people who’ve endured repeated trauma, and those who are traumatized early in life. “The more repeated the trauma the more difficult the disorder is to treat,” says Dr. Ruth Lanius, Director of PTSD Research at Western University.
Lauren McKeon was raped when she was 16, and with each flashback, her feelings of worthlessness and helplessness were reinforced. She was sexually assaulted twice more over the next decade, hiding the events from her friends and family. According to Lanius: “People who shut down because they feel they’re completely helpless, that you know whatever they do will still result in them being hurt, and have this complete loss of agency during the trauma, clinically usually are much sicker than individuals who haven’t experienced that.”
Lauren grew increasingly paralyzed by anxiety and panic attacks, until her secret grew too much to bear. A writer by profession, she shared her story with her family and with the public in an article. It was a major step toward healing, diminishing the power of the shame she’d carried for 15 years.
For more than two decades, Dr. Brad Stolbach, a trauma psychologist at the University of Chicago has worked with African American and Latino youth who’ve been traumatized by violence in the city’s toughest neighborhoods. An innovative program he co-founded, Project Fire offers youth who have been shot, the chance to learn glass blowing. It’s dangerous but not deadly, and seems to help counteract PTSD symptoms. “It’s very hard to be working with glass and not be in the present moment. It’s very hard to be doing that work and not become mindful. And that’s the way to help people who have been traumatized”, according to Dr. Stolbach. But ultimately, the solutions have to address all the sources of violence and disadvantage that hamper the youths’ development and make them vulnerable to PTSD. Says Stolbach, “You can’t pinpoint a specific time when the trauma occurred because there were so many toxins in their lives. We have to as a society make a commitment to deal with this and to fix it. We need to decide do we want to be in a society where everybody is fully human or not.”
While more civilians than soldiers are victimized by PTSD, recent tragedies like last month’s murder-suicide of Lionel Desmond, based at Oromocto New Brunswick remind us of the suffering by our military and that PTSD also affects family members and loved ones.
Stephen O’Brien, a retired member of the Canadian Armed Forces living in Oromocto, New Brunswick. is a witness to this every day. A member of Margot Taylor’s neuroimaging study at Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto he lives with his wife Keri and daughters Taylor and Morgan in Oromocto where he volunteers with his local Marijuana for Trauma (MFT) chapter (https://mftgroup.ca . And, Taylor, his 16 yr old daughter, diagnosed with pre-PTSD participates in a group at her high school for kids whose parents have been diagnosed with PTSD.
Bill Brownstein, writing in the Montreal Gazette, said PTSD: Beyond Trauma is “Illuminating…the timing of the world broadcast premiere couldn’t be more auspicious.”
PTSD: Beyond Trauma will have its World Broadcast Premiere on CBC’s The Nature of Things this Thursday, January 19, 2017 – 8 PM (8:30PM NT). Written and directed by award-winning Patrick Reed (Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr, Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children, Triage), PTSD: Beyond Trauma was produced by Andréa Schmidt and executive produced by Peter Raymont.