On March 24, the Bridge the Gap speaker series held an event focusing on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Bridge the Gap is a mental health speaker series meant to foster better understanding and awareness of mental health-related topics. The speakers are selected so that an event begins with a more scientific discussion of mental health, which is followed by a speaker presenting their personal experience with the topic. Bridge the Gap is an initiative of jack.org, a network that aims to remove the stigma surrounding mental health through education.
Jorge Armony, a researcher at the Douglas Institute and associate professor of psychology at McGill, explained that PTSD is a mental illness that follows direct exposure to a traumatic event. Traumatic events may include different types of threats, sexual violence, or a serious injury, among many other things.
“My experience with post-traumatic stress disorder – I compare it to waves that are rolling in consistently, and I’m constantly trying to get on shore. I would constantly have these triggers which would be another wave coming and coming.”
Armony described three general categories of PTSD symptoms. The first type involves reliving the event, possibly through nightmares or flashbacks. The second type involves avoiding situations that create reminders of the event. The third includes negative associations and changes, such as avoiding loved ones.
Armony noted that a person may not necessarily experience all four types of symptoms.
Caitlin Kelley, the student speaker at the event, shared her personal experience with PTSD. She started experiencing PTSD a couple of years ago following an incident of sexual assault.
“My experience with post-traumatic stress disorder – I compare it to waves that are rolling in consistently, and I’m constantly trying to get on shore,” said Kelley. “I would constantly have these triggers which would be another wave coming and coming.”
She explained that part of the difficulty in trying to recover from PTSD is the stigma and shame that surrounds mental health, and emphasized the importance of destigmatizing mental illnesses by creating more awareness of them.
Armony also touched upon the impact of stigma when discussing treatment for mental illness. He explained that individuals who have experienced traumatic events like natural disasters are much more likely to recover than a man who has experienced a sexual assault. This is because for the first incident there is more likely to be a sense of community and sharing of experiences while the latter would most likely be hidden due to stigma.
“I think it’s super important to have education-based events, because it helps inform people […] a lot of people don’t know how to approach the topic. Having things like this helps open the conversation about mental health.”
“Strength lies in the ability to love yourself unconditionally,” said Kelley.
Illustrating PTSD in more scientific terms, Armony explained that within the brain, the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, is very active. The prefrontal cortex the area associated with control – including emotional control – is less active. This means that someone with PTSD will feel their emotions more deeply, but possess less of a capacity to deal with these emotions.
Regarding risk factors, studies have shown that individuals with a smaller hippocampal volume are more likely to get PTSD. The hippocampus is a major component of the brain that is associated with memory and is very susceptible to stress – when an individual reaches high levels of stress, it actually kills cells in that area.
After the talk, student audience member Loa Gordon spoke positively about the event. “It’s really nice that you get the perspective of an expert in the field […] and also a personal story.”
One of the audience members asked what a good response would be to a friend who suffers from PTSD. Kelley said that responses would vary depending on the individual, but that one of the more important things is to say that you’ll be there to support them.
“I think it’s super important to have education-based events, because it helps inform people […] a lot of people don’t know how to approach the topic,” said Laura Herbert, the president of McGill’s Chapter of jack.org. “Having things like this helps open the conversation about mental health.”