Edmonton

First responders from 9/11 and Las Vegas to share stories of healing in Edmonton

In the wake of two deaths of Edmonton-area firefighters by suicide in the past month, a symposium on mental health for first responders is expected to attract hundreds of participants to the city.

'It's a really scary time, we're all quite vulnerable right now'

A painting by Daniel Sundahl shows a paramedic sitting with his head in his hands after finding a child dead in a car crash. (Daniel Sundahl)

In the wake of two suicides by Edmonton-area firefighters in the past month, a symposium on mental health for first responders is expected to attract hundreds of participants to the city.

"It's a really scary time, we're all quite vulnerable right now," Daniel Sundahl, the symposium's organizer, said Wednesday on CBC's Radio Active.

"Often when these things happen, they come as a surprise and we didn't know, or there was no warning. Co-workers, family members and friends are really worried, 'Who will be the next person to do that?'

"It's important now, more than ever, that we foster a community of support, that (we share) that there is treatment and there are ways out."

First responders who were at 9/11 or the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas will talk about how they healed from their own mental health wounds at the soldout Peer Recovery and Resiliency Symposium.

The event happens Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 at the River Cree Casino.

"These are first responders that have been involved in some of the most harrowing events of our time, but what they're going to speak about is their post-traumatic recovery and resiliency," Sundahl said.

"So other first responders can see these people are like me, they're no different than me, and they've gone through some horrific events. And they've come out OK."
Daniel Sundahl is organizing the Peer Recovery and Resiliency Symposium for first responders. (CBC)

Sundahl, a paramedic based in Leduc, has become a mental health advocate for first responders, after struggling with suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that resulted from things he has seen during 16 years on the job.

Sundahl's uses art to capture the devastating moments that first respondent bear witness to — whether it's a paramedic who appears in a moment of grief, with the body of a young man lying on a stretcher in front of him; or the ghostly image of a patient peering out of an ambulance door, while paramedics work on the real-life victim in the background.

In the last few years, first responders have become more aware of the mental health issues that can develop from their work, Sundahl said.

There are lots of first responders that are scared to come forward.- Daniel Sundahl , paramedic and mental health advocate

"But there's still a long ways to go," he said.

"There are lots of first responders that are scared to come forward. It is still looked at as a weakness in many organizations, to the point where many first responders don't want to confess that they have a mental health injury — which is really, really sad."

Sundahl's artwork has been shown at galleries in Edmonton, and it will also be on display at the symposium.