More Than Just Words: A Story about Post-traumatic Growth

Over two decades ago, my family and I escaped the Bosnian genocide and fled to Germany. I quickly adopted the German language at the age of six. I was forced to mature beyond my years as I became my family’s language lifeline, often translating at doctor appointments and critical government applications. Expressing the needs of my family with a mix of composure, anxiety, happiness, and sorrow became part of my familial role. After leaving Germany, we migrated to Canada and my advocacy role in my immediate family now extended to relatives which continues to this day with the acquisition of the English language. Throughout these experiences, I have demonstrated a passion and developed empathy for working with marginalized populations who face challenges, barriers and stigma that negatively impacts their process to recovery. I have experienced a range of personal and professional situations that have contributed to my understanding of language, diversity and oppression which include my personal experiences of the Yugoslavian war in 1992 that forced my family’s migration to a refugee camp in Germany and experiencing a first psychotic episode in my early adulthood.

In the Bosnian war, I witnessed violence and experienced forced separation of family members and friends. When my family and I were forced to migrate to a refugee camp in Germany, our camp consisted of diverse people and was surrounded by barbed wire which contributed to our social exclusion from the rest of the German society. We experienced chronic stressors as refugees such as marginalization and minority status, socioeconomic disadvantage, poor physical health, malnutrition, head trauma and injuries, collapse of social supports, ongoing concerns for the welfare of relatives in Bosnia and difficulties adapting to the German culture. Our resilience and coping mechanisms within our diverse camp consisted of sharing our struggles through language and supporting one another peacefully and collectively through mutual understanding of what it means to be marginalized and oppressed from the rest of society.

It was these personal experiences of marginalization and oppression that contributed to the onset of my psychotic illness in early adulthood. Experiencing a psychotic illness was difficult because of the way society stigmatizes the illness as somebody being violent, dangerous, crazy, and unpredictable, which contributed to my self-stigma. My personal experience and understanding of societal marginalization and oppression, especially towards mental health, has motivated me to combat the stigma by sharing my own personal story through language and storytelling. Addressing a range of challenges such as contributing factors, dealing with stigma, symptoms, substance misuse, and relapse prevention in psychosis provides hope to affected families signalling that recovery is possible.

I presently work for the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) psychosis program in a Clinical Navigator role; the same program that helped me to recover in 2009. From a lived and professional social work experience lens, I serve as a patient educator, advocate, and support person for staff and patients who may benefit from health care navigation. I collaborate with a large interdisciplinary team that includes staff from LHSC and our community partners to facilitate a smooth and seamless transition of patients across the health care continuum. Over the past decade, I have been invited to speak in various institutions such as schools, hospitals, and community agencies to openly share my story of resistance, resilience, and recovery.

I am presently working on my own book and movie-documentary in efforts to reduce psychosis related stigma and to encourage others to tell their story. I also sit on various committees contributing to systemic change. Prior to the Clinical Navigator position, I have worked at all levels of healthcare including community, private and hospital levels. 

These interactions have allowed me to see the narratives of loss and despair be rewritten to narratives of hope and resilience – including my own.

By Irnes Zeljkovic

You can learn more about my experience in this interview available on YouTube:

[Editor’s note: Irnes continues to strive to decrease stigma around mental health and encourages others to share their story. He is available for podcasts/media/written interviews. You may reach him at:]