Two-thirds of Canadians have experienced traumatic events in their lives, StatsCan says

Health Fitness

WARNING: This story contains discussion of suicide and traumatic events.

Firefighter Rob Leathen says he was haunted by the memory of a woman he was trying to save.

Leathen is one of the nearly two-thirds of Canadians to experience a traumatic event like a car crash, which is the most common type of traumatic event Canadians say they have been exposed to, according to the results of a new Statistics Canada survey.

Chances are, you or someone you know has been exposed to a traumatic event that leaves a lasting impact, based on the findings, which provide insight into the most common potentially traumatic events that adults living in Canada have experienced. 

In his 30-year career as a dispatcher and first responder, Leathen worked at a number of motor vehicle crashes. One involved resuscitating a woman who drove her vehicle off an embankment into a pond.

“I was responsible for looking after her airway,” Leathen recalled. “The thing that really stuck with me with that one was … Well, her eyes were open and I’m looking into her eyes as I’m trying to ventilate her.” 

The woman did not survive.

Firefighter Rob Leathen worked at many traffic accidents over his career that left their mark. (Submitted by Rob Leathen)

Statistics Canada calls stress a common experience. This week’s report, based on its Survey on Mental Health and Stressful Events, looks at the connection stressful experiences that rise to the level of what they call “potentially traumatic events” have to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Trauma and PTSD

The vast majority of people who face a traumatic event do not develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress, thanks to resilience that protects us, according to psychiatrists.

Dr. Abraham Snaiderman treats and studies severe traumatic brain injury, and said the Statistics Canada finding that resonated with him was that about eight per cent of those surveyed reported moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD in the month before completing the survey. 

“A number of people when experiencing a trauma like a car accident will go on to develop extreme mood fluctuations, sleep disruption, reliving of the traumatic event in the forms of nightmares [or] in the forms of intrusive thoughts, what we call flashbacks,” said Snaiderman, director of neuropsychiatry at the University Health Network’s Toronto Rehabilitation Institute.

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Dr. Abraham Snaiderman compares a brain’s memory bank to a computer pulling up a stored file and creating a panic reaction.

“The type, frequency and severity of traumatic events that a person has experienced can affect their likelihood of developing PTSD,” according to the Statistics Canada report.

Snaiderman said he found that, with his patients, the more preserved someone’s memory is of an event, the greater the likelihood of developing symptoms.

Repeated or severe trauma, such as rape or what soldiers experience in combat, can change how the brain is hardwired in areas encoding memory, Snaiderman said.

Then, after the person experiences a triggering stimulus like a sight or smell, with the tense muscles of a fight-or-flight response, a signal is sent to the emotional brain and it’s as if the memory bank pulls up a stored file and creates an almost instantaneous panic reaction, the psychiatrist said.

In firefighter Leathen’s case, things became chaotic and in turmoil before he tried to take his own life.

Leathen now views receiving an official diagnosis of severe PTSD, severe major depressive disorder and borderline obsessive-compulsive disorder in 2019 as a rebirth. 

“I realize how much energy it takes to keep things hidden,” Leathen said.

Instead, he decided to be open about his PTSD.

A therapist guided him to understand what emotions he was feeling. Treatments helped him to reprocess the memories, which he said are no longer distressing.

“I still do get triggered from things, but I’ve got the mental toolbox to be able to deal with it,” Leathen said.

WATCH | What experts say is the key to overcoming trauma:

Most Canadians say they’ve experienced trauma, StatsCan survey says

Nearly two-thirds of Canadian adults say they’ve been exposed to a traumatic event, according to a survey by Statistics Canada. Experts say the key to overcoming the trauma is to recognize it early on.

‘War raging inside of them’

In the same Statistics Canada report, respondents also reported how debilitating the impacts of PTSD can be. A quarter of people aged 25 to 54 who reported moderate to severe PTSD symptoms in the lead up to the survey said they had not worked, compared with 12 per cent who didn’t work and did not have those symptoms.

Jenny Iszakovits, a registered occupational therapist at St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, Ont., works with clients in a Driver Assessment and Rehab program to help them overcome anxiety surrounding driving.

Most have experienced a traumatic event related to a vehicle, as a driver, passenger or a pedestrian.

Iszakovits said after a collision, her clients’ outlook changes to being consumed by thoughts of getting into an accident.

“They have this war that is raging inside of them,” Iszakovits said. “They really want to get back to driving … but their brain is telling them, ‘No, no, no, danger.'”

Iszakovits works with clients to identify the negative thoughts, challenge them with proof and evidence to replace the thoughts with more objective and realistic ways of thinking to get behind the wheel.

‘Stressful Events’ survey findings 

Aside from traffic collisions and assault, other traumatic events experiences in the Statistics Canada survey included:

  • Natural disasters (15 per cent)
  • Unwanted sexual experiences other than sexual assaults (15 per cent)
  • Being held in captivity (one per cent)
  • Having caused serious injury, harm, or death to someone else (two per cent)

The survey data was collected by Statistics Canada along with the the Public Health Agency of Canada in September to December 2023.

The survey used a self-screening tool to assess symptoms of PTSD, not a clinical diagnosis. Respondents were also asked about their use of alcohol and cannabis. 

Survey respondents were asked to include if the events happened directly to them, events that they witnessed, events that they learned about that happened to a close family member or a close friend and events that they were repeatedly exposed to details about as part of their job.

In Leathen’s case, he said first responders may experience “complex PTSD” from an accumulation of multiple events.

He’s now an advocate for first responder mental health supports, and does public speaking, blogging and produces digital artwork representing the PTSD experience.

“It was a negative time in my life, but ultimately I’m a much better person now,” he said.

If you or someone you know is struggling, here’s where to get help:

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