From Hollywood blockbusters to front-page stories, the image of the tormented veteran unable to transition from war zone to home front is everywhere.
But the focus on the military’s struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) obscures a simple reality: PTSD hits more civilians than soldiers, and more women than men. And it manifests with a dizzying range of symptoms, from flashbacks, nightmares and aggression to depression, numbness and avoidance.
Take Stan Fisher and Ute Lawrence, who survived one of the deadliest multi-car accident in Canadian history. They were driving on a stretch of the 401 highway known as Carnage Alley, east of Windsor. In total, 87 vehicles were involved in crash. Eight people were killed.
Ute and Stan walked away from the horrific scene with a few scratches, but scars surfaced in other ways. And while they had both undergone the same traumatic event, the symptoms of PTSD they displayed were markedly different.
Dr. Ruth Lanius at Western University in London Ontario, noticed their brain scans looked different too. She and other researchers have since developed a sophisticated understanding of what goes on in the key areas of the brain to produce the varied symptoms of PTSD.
Scientists are also interested in how those parts of the brain interact. In a study of Canadian soldiers with PTSD, Dr. Margot Taylor and Dr. Ben Dunkley at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children have observed such consistent patterns of over-active communication between key areas that they believe they’ve found a biomarker for the psychiatric disorder.
There are dozens of treatment options for people with PTSD. Many appear to work for some people, some of the time.
But at Massachusetts General Hospital, a team of surgeons, neuroscientists and engineers has embarked on a DARPA-funded project funded they hope will treat PTSD in patients for whom other treatments have failed. They’re cutting to the core of the matter, and building a brain implant.
Dr. Alain Brunet, from Montreal’s McGill University, has a much cheaper, faster treatment to propose. For over a decade, he’s used propranolol, a beta-blocking drug, to decrease patients’ emotional response to fearful memories.
Now, he’s brought the treatment to Paris, where the November 2105 terror attacks killed more than 130 people. More than 5,000 people — from survivors to first responders — were exposed to the violence.
Patients who have completed the treatment have been able to shake the invasive memories, and are no longer paralyzed by sleeplessness and suicidal thoughts.
But when so many people experience sudden loss, near-death, violence, and abuse, why are only some haunted by PTSD while others are more resilient?
One answer seems to lie in the type of traumatic event and the age at which one experiences it. Lauren McKeon was raped at 16. Now a writer, she describes how the experience and intrusive PTSD symptoms transformed her, and made her more vulnerable to being raped again.
The problem is even more intractable in a context where the violence doesn’t stop. Psychologist Brad Stolbach works with children and teens affected by gun violence in Chicago. But it’s not the only stressor they have to contend with: poverty, drug addiction, inadequate schools and mental health care all play a roll. For them, it’s a matter not just of healing symptoms but fixing a system.
PTSD: Beyond Trauma explores a timely subject situated at the intersection of science and human interest, with life-and-death stakes. It takes viewers to the frontlines of scientific exploration, following researchers and people living with PTSD as they look for answers. Promising new discoveries raise key questions about the faultlines of fear and memory, and the roles geography and early development all may play in predicting personal responses to trauma.
Written & Directed by
Director of Photography
Location Production Assistant
Sound Effects Editors
Windsor Star/Post Media Network
For White Pine Pictures
COO: Steve Ord
Director of Business and Legal Affairs: Jason Meloche
Executive in Charge of Production: Stephen Paniccia
Production Accountant: Adriana Aviles
Head of Marketing & Communications: Davida Gragor
Marketing Coordinator: Alicia Giammaria
Executive Assistant to Peter Raymont: Georgina Graham
Dr. Margaret McKinnon
Dr. Bruno Millet
Dr. Angelique Paulk
Dr. Mathieu Raux
Dr. Kerry Ressler
Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo
Dr. Barbara Rothbaum
Col. Pat Stogran
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtrière, AP-HP
The Hospital for Sick Children
Massachusetts General Hospital
Mikva Challenge Teen Health Council
University of Chicago
Produced with the participation of Rogers Documentary Fund
Produced with the participation of
The Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit
Ontario Film and Television Tax Credits
White Pine Pictures
For the CBC
General manager, Programming
Executive Director, Unscripted Content
Senior Director, Documentary
Executive in Charge of Production
Director of Production, Unscripted Content
Director of Finance, Unscripted Content
The Nature of Things
with David Suzuki
Produced by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
“produced in association with” animation Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
Visit our website to watch the series online, discover extra behind-the-scenes stories and view Canada's nature scenes in 360. Visit Wild Canadian Year
Tweets about #CBCTNoT OR #NatureofThings