Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the COVID-19 pandemic
Organization: Public Health Agency of Canada
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September to December 2020
Data from the Survey on COVID-19 and Mental HealthFootnote 1
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is a mental disorder that can happen after exposure to potentially psychologically traumatic events (e.g., actual or threatened death, natural disasters, violence).
Symptoms of PTSD include recurring and distressing memories, avoiding reminders of the event(s), and disturbed sleep.Footnote 2
PTSD and the COVID-19 pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted individuals, families, and communities in many ways.
Stressors from the pandemic may increase the number of Canadians experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Those who already had PTSD may experience more severe symptoms.
A diagnosis of PTSD requires a trained and licensed clinician. The Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health used a symptom-based screening tool to identify individuals with moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD (i.e., those who would screen positive for PTSD).Footnote 3
Symptoms of PTSD in Canadians aged 18+
62% of Canadians have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
6% of Canadians screened positive for PTSD.Footnote 3 This was:
- Higher among women than men
- Women 8%
- Men 4%
- Highest among those aged 18-34
- Women 12%
- Men 5%
- Lowest among those aged 65 and older 3%
- Higher among frontline workersFootnote 4 than other Canadians
- Frontline workers 10%
- Other Canadians 5%
Impacts of COVID-19
Compared to those who did not screen positive for PTSD, those who screened positive were about 3 times more likely to report being impacted by the pandemic in terms of:
- Difficulty meeting financial obligations/essential needs
- Death of a family member, friend, or colleague
- Physical health problems
- Challenges in personal relationships with household members
Mental health-related issues
Compared to those who did not screen positive for PTSD, those who screened positive were more likely to report:
- Symptoms of anxiety or depressionFootnote 5 in the past 2 weeks – 7 times more likely
- Thoughts of suicide in their lifetime – 5 times more likely
- Increased cannabis use since the beginning of the pandemic – 3.5 times more likely
- Daily cannabis use in the past month – 3.5 times more likely
- Increased alcohol use since the beginning of the pandemic – 1.5 times more likely
- Heavy drinkingFootnote 6 in the past month – 1.5 times more likely
The Government of Canada recognizes the tremendous impact that PTSD has on individuals, families, communities, and workplaces. If you or someone you know is in crisis or needs mental health support, visit Wellness Together Canada for a wide range of resources and supports.
- Canada.ca website on the Federal Framework on PTSD
- Canada.ca website on Coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
Like us: @HealthyCdns
Follow us: @GovCanHealth
- Download the PTSD Coach Canada mobile app developed by Veterans Affairs Canada
- Mental health support: Get help
- Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Awareness resources
References and notes:
- Footnote 1
Statistics Canada. Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health (SCMH). 2020 (Retrieved January 2021). Available from: https://www23.statcan.gc.ca/imdb/p2SV.pl?Function=getSurvey&Id=1283036.
- Footnote 2
American Psychiatric Association. Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). 2022 (Retrieved August 2022). Available from: https://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425787.x07_Trauma_and_Stressor_Related_Disorders.
- Footnote 3
Individuals screened positive for PTSD if they had a total score of ≥33 on the PTSD Checklist for DSM-5 (PCL-5). Screening positive does not necessarily indicate a diagnosis. Available from: www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/assessment/adult-sr/ptsd-checklist.asp.
- Footnote 4
A frontline worker was defined as “an individual who has the potential to come in direct contact with COVID-19 by assisting those who have been diagnosed with the virus”. Examples provided were “police officers, firefighters, paramedics, nurses or doctors.”
- Footnote 5
Moderate to severe anxiety and depression were represented by scores of ≥10 on the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale (GAD-7) and Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), respectively. Scores on these screening tools do not necessarily indicate a diagnosis.
- Footnote 6
Heavy drinking was defined as 4+ alcoholic drinks for women and 5+ alcoholic drinks for men in one sitting.
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