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COLUMN: Breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness and PTSD

I always thought only those who were in a war had PTSD. I was wrong.
About 17 per cent of British Columbians are currently experiencing a mental illness or substance use issue, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. (File photo)

This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 2- Oct. 8). The annual campaign is meant to shine a light on what it is like to live with a mental illness.

This hits close to home for me. I was officially diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) in 2021.

I always thought only those who were in a war had PTSD. I was wrong. After surviving a horrific car accident in Uganda in 2018, I was left to pick up the pieces. At the time, I did not have the tools or a healthy community to properly process it. My family was incredibly supportive, but I didn’t live in the same province as them.

Gary Thandi is executive director of Moving Forward, a Surrey-based group that offers free and low-cost counselling options across Canada. He said a person’s ability to bounce back from traumatic events is tied to several factors – their resiliency, the tools they have to process such events and the environment in which they are healing (is the community they are a part of helping or hindering their healing process?).

The church group I was a part of at the time did not know how to properly support me and, in some ways, made things worse. The stigma and shame associated with struggling with PTSD only grew.

The Canadian Mental Health Association says the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness can cause some people not to reach out for help.

And according to a 2016 study, 9.2 per cent of Canadians will suffer from PTSD in their lifetime.

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Dr. Gabor Maté is a Vancouver-based physician with a special interest in trauma.

In the documentary, “The Wisdom of Trauma,” Maté said, “Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.”

This is so true for me. While the traumatic event matters, it is the memory of the trauma that is stored in the body. I had a head injury in the car accident, so I don’t remember anything, but my body does.

PTSD can manifest itself in different ways, said Thandi.

“It could be sounds, smells, you know, certain memories that can just come up out of nowhere and be quite debilitating, to the point where someone doesn’t want to get out of bed, or to the point where they may use a substance to try to cope.”

For me, it was insomnia, emotional flashbacks, disassociation, hypervigilance and more.

When I used to get triggered, it would sometimes take me days to fully recover. During that time, I often isolated myself in my dark basement suite and binge-watched Netflix.

Mental illness is not something you can just wish away. It took me going to a trauma therapist, finding the right medication, and putting in the hard work. Now four years later, I am still jumpier than most people -please don’t scare me- but I now have the tools to help my nervous system when I am triggered.

Thandi says people are starting to recognize that trauma is not something that you can just “get over.” While a person may struggle with substance use or panic attacks, in many cases the underlying cause is trauma. That is why it is important to deal with the underlying cause, not just the symptom, he adds.

On a positive note, Thandi says the stigma surrounding PTSD and other mental illnesses are trending in the right direction, where there is an acknowledgment that mental illness exists.

“People are more empathetic.”

For more information on Moving Forward, go to or call 778-321-3054.

Anna Burns is a multimedia journalist with the Surrey Now-Leader. Email her at

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Anna Burns

About the Author: Anna Burns

I cover health care, non-profits and social issues-related topics for the Surrey Now-Leader.
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