‘We have come a long way:’ U of R highlighting PTSD development for awareness day

Nicholas Carleton has been a professor at the University of Regina since 2010. (Photo by U of R Photography)

The University of Regina (U of R) is inviting Canadians to mark Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day on Saturday while sharing the significant developments in understanding its symptoms.

Canada began recognizing June 27 as PTSD Awareness Day in 2019. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the illness’ formal recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Nicholas Carelton is a psychology professor at the U of R and scientific director of the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment (CIPSRT). He describes PTSD as “a mental health disorder which can occur following exposure to specific types of potentially psychologically traumatic events involving a severe threat to oneself or others.”

“Today, we understand the impacts of exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events better than ever before. We also know that these impacts can vary across individuals and situations. We’ve seen substantial advances towards improving mental health supports for all people, including public safety personnel, but we still have more work to do,” he said in an educational video to mark the anniversary.

“Through continued advocacy, education and ongoing research, I truly believe we are moving towards a clearer vision of PTSD.”

Carelton said it may have only been four decades since PTSD’s formal recognition as a mental health disorder, but the effects of psychologically traumatic events were known long before that.

In fact, he said, the understanding of these effects dates back to 762 BCE. Homer’s Iliad may be the earliest known documented example of potential effects of trauma with Achille’s exposure to war.

Also, following the 1667 Great Fire of London, Samuel Pepys wrote that he “could not sleep a night without terrors of fire.”

However, the potential effects of trauma on a person’s well-being really shone through after the First World War.

“The war produced historic numbers of people who having returned home from combat deployment, reported significant difficulties with anxiety, depression and substantial neurological disorders. The impact of exposures to potentially psychological traumatic events could no longer be dismissed,” said Carelton.

He explained that the term ‘shell shock’ was coined in the First World War to describe the symptoms associated with combat trauma, but military leaders didn’t accept it as a genuine illness.

“The leaders designated shell shock as being a weakness, cowardice and a failure of manhood. Only those with physical injuries could claim to be distressed. All others were deemed to be cowards and in either case, such people were condemned and shamed,” he said.

By World War Two, ‘shell shock’ was replaced with the terms ‘combat stress reaction’ or ‘combat fatigue,’ and researchers gained a better understanding of these psychological responses throughout the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

In 1952, explained Carelton, the DSM’s first edition included Gross Stress Reaction as a viable diagnosis, but it was removed before the second edition was published in 1968. Grassroots organizations stepped up, though, advocating for a further understanding of the mental disorder.

PTSD was officially added to the DSM in 1980.

This spiralled into federal funding towards research projects and the development of a national action plan for PTSD, to name a few milestones.

“We have come a long way in 40 years and at CIPSRT we have been able to disseminate a further understanding of the effects PTSD has on PSP (public safety personnel) in Canada as well as make progress on PSP-specific treatment,” said Nicholas Jones, CIPSRT Executive Director and U of R’s Interim Associate Vice-President (Research).

“Our goal is to have all Canadians join Ontario in recognizing June 27, 2020 as PTSD Awareness Day and share CIPSRT’s PTSD awareness video.”

Canadians are encouraged to wear a teal ribbon or shirt on Saturday to support public safety personnel. This includes police officers, firefighters, paramedics and correctional employees, who are more at-risk to post-traumatic stress injuries.

According to the release, research shows 50 to 90 per cent of people in North America may experience one or more potentially traumatic events in their lifetimes. Five to 10 per cent of those people will possibly develop PTSD.