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PTSD hospital admissions in Ontario double in 5 years

05/12/2015 05:30 EDT | Updated 05/12/2016 05:59 EDT
For Shelley McKay, the smell of coffee beans wafting out of a café would bring back paralyzing flashbacks of her father throwing a coffee pot at her mother.

At other times, a poster with an image of a man who looked like her abuser, or a stranger with a similar voice, could lead to prolonged nightmares of her ex-partner repeatedly punching her in the face.

For years McKay said she put up a perfect front but on the inside she suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder in silence.

"It manifested itself in multiple suicide attempts, erratic behaviour, self-injuries, excessive alcohol consumption to numb the pain and over enthusiastic efforts to help others, and put their needs before my own," said McKay. 

McKay is a former policy analyst with the federal government who once belonged to Canada's national women's cycling team. She excelled at work and in fitness for many years until a mental breakdown in 2002.  

That's when she said she was diagnosed with PTSD following a suicide attempt. Statistics suggest McKay is far from alone.

Mental health resources in eastern Ontario

- Ottawa Distress Centre line: 613-238-3311.

- Mental Health Crisis Line: (Ages 16 and up) 613-722-6914 toll free at: 1-866-996-0991.

- Child, Youth and Family Crisis Line for Eastern Ontario: 1-877-377-7775.

- Brockville and counties of Leeds, Grenville and Lanark toll free at: 1-866-281-2911.

- Pembroke Regional Hospital Mobile Crisis Team: 613-732-3675, ext. 8116. 

Significant surge in attempted suicides

PTSD is a mental health disorder that can occur after experiencing or seeing a life-threatening event. This can be the case for soldiers, first responders, survivors of a natural disaster or victims of violent crime. 

PTSD can also stem from trauma experienced as a child after physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

New provincial figures obtained by CBC News reveal Ontario hospitals are treating a significant surge in attempted suicides by patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The most recent data from the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care show between 2009 and 2013 more than 600 patients suffering from PTSD were treated in emergency rooms for "self-poisoning or self-injury."

Four out of five cases involved female patients.

In 2009, Ontario hospitals treated 66 cases of suicide attempts in PTSD patients. By 2013, that number spiked to 175.

The discharge records, obtained by CBC News through a freedom of information request, also show that between 2009 and 2013 physicians in Ontario hospitals treated more than 4,500 cases of PTSD in patients. The number of PTSD hospital admissions also doubled in that five-year period.

An epidemiological study conducted by the Champlain Local Health Integration Network estimated more than 22,000 people in eastern Ontario suffer from PTSD. 

Timely and sufficient care lacking

Dr. Simon Hatcher, a psychiatrist at The Royal Mental Health Centre, said the jump in PTSD diagnoses likely reflects an improved awareness and screening among doctors for trauma that leads to mental illness, but he stresses the "real numbers" are much higher.  

"Most people with PTSD don't get admitted to hospitals. Those figures miss a lot of people," said Hatcher, who also researches suicide at the University of Ottawa.  

Since PTSD encompasses numerous symptoms, Hatcher said hospitals may categorize patients under other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, even though trauma is at the root of the illness.

What is of more concern to Hatcher is that even though patients are being diagnosed with PTSD, they are not getting timely or sufficient care.  

Ontario's health insurance program will pay for psychiatric care but not psychological counseling. Getting a referral to a psychiatrist could also take months. 

"If you had therapies that treat cancer that are proven to work, but only the rich could access them there would be an outcry. We need parity for mental health and physical health," said Hatcher.

Childhood trauma common cause of PTSD

Three out of four patients Hatcher treats at The Royal are individuals who have experienced childhood trauma.

Psychotherapy coupled with medication allowed McKay to control the symptoms of her PTSD and return to work.

However, despite several years of successful coping, she lapsed this past February and once again tried to take her own life.

McKay is currently on leave from her government job and devotes much of her time to volunteering at the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute, as well as raising awareness for mental health.

"There are days when I feel everything is broken. I feel a lot of guilt and shame about the gifts I was given naturally and how PTSD took those gifts away," said McKay.

By breaking her silence McKay hopes others will reach out for help.

- On mobile? Tap here to see the increase in PTSD hospital visits.

MORE:cbcNews