"The Trauma Therapy Program has given me my life back."
Charlyn’s Story: Helping childhood trauma survivors find life beyond PTSD
It wasn’t until Charlyn sought treatment for substance abuse that she discovered the true root cause of her addiction issues: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemming from a devastating history of childhood trauma.
“I was a mess, but I didn’t know anything about PTSD,” she says now. “My addiction problems, my co-dependency issues, my unhealthy relationships – I just thought that was my life.”
Abandoned by both of her parents as a child, Charlyn lived in 10 different homes by the time she was 15 years old. Throughout her formative years, she experienced sexual, emotional and physical abuse, often at the hands of those who were supposed to be caring for her.
Although Charlyn did her best to move forward – having three beautiful children, getting married and buying a house – the consequences emerged in waves throughout adulthood, presenting as addiction and substance abuse.
Two years ago, when she realized that she was struggling to find any meaning in life, she decided it was time to seek help at an addiction treatment facility. It was only then that she learned PTSD stemming from childhood trauma was the driver behind her challenges.
Charlyn’s addiction counsellors told her about Women’s College Hospital’s Trauma Therapy Program (TTP) – one of the only therapy programs in Canada specifically designed for people who have experienced childhood trauma – and she quickly got started with the assessment and enrollment process.
Using an anti-oppressive approach that recognizes the unique social and cultural experiences of women and marginalized communities, TTP offers primarily group-based psychotherapy for survivors of childhood trauma. As part of the hospital’s strategy to break down barriers to care by shifting the majority of clinics and services online, TTP is offered both in-person and online in an adapted virtual format – which has enabled patients to continue to receive support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Studies show that at least 1/3 of Canadians have experienced childhood abuse or maltreatment. The impacts are far-reaching – survivors struggle with mental and physical health challenges, their sense of self and relationships with others, and experience difficulties with safe self-care as they try to cope with the pain and distress their childhood trauma has left them with,” says Dr. Simone Vigod, Women’s College Hospital’s chief of psychiatry. “These struggles often make it difficult for survivors to seek out and access health care and support. Through the TTP and our virtual care strategy, we’re focused on both increasing access to care for all childhood trauma survivors and ensuring that the care we provide meets their unique needs and is inclusive of our diverse population.”
Recognizing a lack of trauma-informed therapy across the healthcare system despite extensive need, the program team is also launching a pilot program to train community-based healthcare providers across Ontario to offer trauma-informed care. The project has the potential to reach thousands of people living with PTSD provincewide while serving as a model for other healthcare leaders throughout Canada and beyond.
For Charlyn, who began online group therapy sessions with TTP in September 2020, the impact on her life and well-being has been profound.
“It’s given me my life back,” she says. “It’s helped me to learn how to process my feelings and how to deal with situations as they arise. It’s given me greater acceptance of my past experiences and how they affect me today. It’s allowed me to live my life authentically and take care of myself. And it’s let me know that I’m not alone.”
What is trauma-informed care?
The body in inextricably linked to trauma and holds the scars – both visible and non-visible – of past experiences. These experiences can leave survivors feeling overwhelmed and unsafe in their own skin.
Trauma-informed care ensures that a healthcare or service provider is informed about and sensitive to the impact of trauma and adjusts how care is delivered in order to accommodate trauma survivors’ unique vulnerabilities.
Providers understand the intersections of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, classism, ableism, ageism, and the like, and give thoughtful consideration to who experiences trauma and how people are treated within healthcare institutions, while recognizing the challenges and on-going learnings required to effectively do so.
Through trauma-informed care, survivors feel safe and have as much control and choice over their care as possible, and providers can ensure services and treatment are not re-traumatizing.