Former first responder in Barrie being recognized for saving lives - including her own

After a failed suicide attempt, Natalie Harris founded Wings of Change, a peer support group for emergency first responders with 25 chapters across the country. She was just elected as a city councillor for Barrie.

Natalie Harris founded support group Wings of Change after a failed suicide attempt in 2014

Natalie Harris of Barrie was the first female advanced-care paramedic to have been trained, and successfully certified, by Simcoe County. She's also a mental health advocate, teacher, author and hosts a podcast on mental health issues. (Natalie Harris)

Natalie Harris of Barrie knows what it's like to face personal hardship and she's dedicating herself to making sure nobody else has to go through it alone.

Harris, who was the first female advanced-care paramedic to have been trained, and successfully certified, by Simcoe County, told her story to CBC's Ontario Morning Monday.

The mental health advocate, author, and teacher explained to host Wei Chen, that she founded Wings of Change, a peer support group for emergency first responders, after suffering emotional trauma when she responded to a double murder call in Barrie in 2012. 

"I tried to cope with that by using alcohol and prescription drugs and I went down into a spiral of darkness and the world became very dark to me because of witnessing what I did."

Harris explained that the crime was part of a satanic cult ritual and they found two murdered women who were left almost decapitated. 

Though Harris had attended many difficult situations over the years, she said this one was especially difficult because in this case the killer became her patient when they discovered he had self inflicted wounds.

Harris said having to treat him resulted in severe depression, anxiety and sleep terrors. She ended up resorting to abusing prescription drugs and alcohol. 

Harris said it was a slow progression that built up over a couple of years, but that everything came to a head when she had to testify at the trial in 2014 and was not only forced to relive the horrific experience all over again, but also had to come face-to-face again with the accused for whom she had provided medical care.

"After I testified that day, I overdosed. And that was the beginning of my recovery into post-traumatic growth, where I am now." 

Harris founded Wings of Change after a failed suicide attempt and after realizing there were no uniformed peer support groups for first responders. (Natalie Harris)

Following her overdose, Harris entered into a rehab program for her addiction and PTSD. She said she took part in a uniformed professionals' peer support group, which she found extremely helpful because they all understood each others' language and culture, and had all seen the same things and experienced the same traumas.

Harris said when she left rehab, she quickly realized that that type of peer support was non-existent.

It was at that point that Wings of Change was born.

Harris first developed a focus group and consulted with many peer support experts. They then developed the solution-based Wings of Change.

"We don't talk about trauma, we leave that to the experts. We talk about solutions and resources and life and family and hope, and it's really transformed the lives of so many people," she said.

Now Colleges Ontario — the advocacy group for the province's colleges —  is making her one of its nominees to receive a Premier's Award on Nov. 26 in Toronto in the Health Sciences Category.

Harris was also just elected as a city councillor for Barrie. She said her main focus is to improve Barrie's urgent mental health care system. Harris would like to see people have access to the care they need in more of a walk-in clinic-type setting.

Harris explained that all of her advocacy work is really just a part of her own recovery and the reason she is so healthy now. She said the goal is to continue travelling across the country sharing her story and spreading messages of resilience, hope, and the future.

"I was hiding behind the walls of stigma and I knew I had to finally shed that wall. But doing so meant I needed to talk, and I needed to be honest, and I needed to be raw with the world."