Dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in refugees 

By: Callum Denault 

Published on: April 05 2023

TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains topics such as violence and rape. This may distress some readers. 

   Photo: RODNAE Productions (Pexels) 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is defined by the Canadian government as a mental disorder people may experience after experiencing something horrible. Traumatic events that may lead to PTSD include war, personal violence, crime, natural disasters, and major accidents. Going through PTSD can interfere with your work or school, and it can often be quite stressful to go through. 

A United Kingdom based charity that specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder—PTSDUK—notes PTSD can often arise from multiple, different traumas that build up in one person. PTSD is common in refugees who are often either victims of violence, or know people who are. An estimated 40 per cent of adult refugees and 90 per cent of child refugees suffer from PTSD. 

Psych-social support activities can be very helpful for survivors of trauma, but refugees are often unaware these supports exist or do not know how to access them. Additionally, trauma is often shared in families, particularly children and parents. Children tend to be highly sensitive to how their parents react to an event and how they discuss it after the fact. This can make it hard for children to feel comfortable discussing their traumas because they might be worried about further stressing out their parents.  

In an interview with the University of Utah, Dr. Omar Reda—a psychiatrist specializing in refugee trauma, who is a refugee himself—said many people arrive in a new country thinking they have left all their problems behind them. However, entering a new country often means leaving behind your friends, family, and a social support network. Adapting to a new culture and language adds more difficulties. Dr. Reda added PTSD can cause problems in your relationships, and that a lot of refugees worry about people they know who are still in their home country. 

Dealing with flashbacks, triggers, and recurring dreams in PTSD 

Flashbacks are when you become disassociated with your surroundings and slip into vividly relieving a traumatic event. Often flashbacks are triggered by certain sights, smells, sounds, or other sensations felt by a person when they were undergoing the event. For example, a rape survivor may be triggered noticing a particular smell or form of pain they experienced during their assault. 

It can help to notice the early signs that you are falling into a flashback, such as if things start to look blurry around you. 

Grounding techniques help prevent flashbacks from onsetting by reminding you when and where you actually are. It is suggested you look around and take detailed notes of your actual surroundings, like the colour of everything or how many pieces of furniture are around you. This can help you momentarily forget the visuals and other sensations that you remember from your trauma.  

You can also carry items with you to occupy your senses to prevent yourself from noticing triggers. For instance, peppermint can cover up smells, biting into a lemon distracts from other tastes, and playing loud music can drown out other sounds. Strongly holding something that is jarring to touch, like an ice cube, helps you stay in the present moment. 

   Photo: RODNAE Productions (Pexels) 

Organizations that can help 

If you are looking for a place to start finding help, talk to your doctor. The Canadian Centre for Refugees & Immigration Healthcare, The Ontario Mental Health Centre, and The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) all offer mental health services to newcomers.  

While they do not specialize in mental health, there are several other charities dedicated to helping new Canadians which also offer some healthcare services.[Text Wrapping Break] 

The Community Development Council Durham offers several referrals, including to family doctors, family and child healthcare services, and mental health services. Outside healthcare, it also provides assistance with government ID, employment, education, life skills, and other aspects to help newcomers settle. 

The Kingston Employment and Youth Services (KEYS) has partnered with the Kingston Community Health Centre on delivering Resettlement Assistance Programs.[Text Wrapping Break] 

Lighthouse Christian Ministries offers emergency food support and health services—including dental—to people who have little to no income. 

The Afghan Resettlement Programs website has a list of organizations which are the lead for immigration services in that part of Canada. This list is at the bottom of their contact page

Other healthcare services are listed in this article on “Supports for immigrants and refugees with disabilities.” 

Helping someone who has PTSD 

If you have a friend or loved one suffering from PTSD, ideally, they should see a doctor or use the resources linked to in this article. However, there are ways you might be able to help them as well. 

It is important to spend time with your friend or loved one to enjoy each other’s company and live away from the trauma. Pursuing hobbies together and following a set routine can help rebuild trust. [Text Wrapping Break] 

Let the person you know with PTSD take the lead in discussing their trauma, and listen to what they have to say without forcing them to speak. Keep an eye out for signs they are angry or stressed.  

Take care of your own mental health as well, and set boundaries with your friend or loved one if needed. 

Ways to treat PTSD 

Narrative Exposure Therapy involves small groups of people joining sessions together, where they tell their life stories in the order they happened with the guidance of a therapist. The goal is for people to recount their traumatic experiences and the emotions they feel remembering those things, while staying connected to the safety of the present day. 

WebMD lists several different ways to treat PTSD. Most therapies involve Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is designed to help change thought patterns causing you distress. Some forms of therapy help with dealing with the stress that comes from trauma, while others help you either discuss the trauma or find a way to associate traumatic events with something positive.  

There are also several different medications that may be prescribed to handle the kind of chemical imbalances in the brain that may result from PTSD.  

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