News / Vancouver

B.C. PTSD survivor says more work needed to fight mental health stigma

There was a point when JP Phaneuf had given up on everything.

The former B.C. paramedic and Canadian Armed Forces member recalled his “darkest moment” in February 2014 as the feelings of extreme isolation, the panic attacks and the out-of-control thoughts and emotions had pushed him to the edge.

A year later and Phaneuf — eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder — is sharing his story of survival in an effort to fight the still-widespread stigma surrounding mental illness in Canada.

“I want to say that we’ve come a long way as far as raising the awareness around mental health,” said the 39-year-old Chilliwack resident, who works as a realtor and federal corrections officer.

“But as far as coming to accept it and treat it like any other disability I don’t know that we’re there yet … I don’t know that we’ve actually crossed over into a place where it’s accepted and welcomed”

For Phaneuf, the support of his family and the companionship of his now-four-year-old service dog Jenga were invaluable to his recovery.

“Without that I’m not sure I’d still be here,” he said.

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JP Phaneuf credits his family and service dog Jenga with helping him on his road to recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder." width="100%" />JP Phaneuf credits his family and service dog Jenga with helping him on his road to recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

While mental health is most keenly felt firsthand, within families and communities it has a more far-reaching impact.

Reports from the Mental Health Commission of Canada peg the economic cost of mental illness at more than $50 billion, with B.C. bearing $6.6 billion of the burden.

It was previously believed that one-in-five Canadians experience mental illness, but recent research shows that number may lowball the actual figure.

It’s more likely one in three, said Julia Kaisla, a spokesperson for the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“It’s an issue that Canada is still struggling to address,” she said.

“There is still a lack of access to treatment … and a tremendous amount of stigma.”

As for PTSD, CMHA figures indicate that 160 soldiers died by suicide between 2004 and 2014.

PTSD isn’t restricted to military members, with mental health disorders cropping up in a variety of professions including police officers, paramedics, corrections staff and healthcare and social workers.

In all, 24 first responders took their own lives over a six-month period last year, according to CMHA data.

At this year’s national Bottom Line Conference, taking place in Vancouver on Feb. 24, the CMHA is looking to highlight ideas for solutions from survivors.

Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire will provide the keynote address at the 12th annual conference, sharing about the aftermath of his experience heading the ill-fated 1994 U.N. peacekeeping mission to Rwanda.

As for Phaneuf, part of the solution is to keep sharing stories.

“I think when people connect to people as people and not as a label or a diagnosis that is where the change happens,” he said.

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