Nine hundred people cram inside Centre Street Church in Calgary bound by their conviction to stop the suicides of first responders and their families.

The First Responder Suicide Awareness Conference, held last month, featured speakers such as 11-year paramedic Natalie Harris..

“I developed what was called moral injury,” Harris told the crowd of first responders.

In 2012, Harris was called to respond to a double-murder satanic cult suicide pact. The murderer, who had self-inflicted wounds, was Harris’ patient.

“Basically I stared at the world in a different light because I couldn’t believe that a human being could consciously choose to harm other people,” says Harris.

Speaking out helps to reduce stigma

Event organizer Diana Festejo is also the Calgary House and Intake Workers liaison of Legacy Place Society. It’s a place to help first responders work through issues caused by their important, yet tough, jobs.

Festejo says that not only are first responders constantly exposed to trauma but that their families often have to experience indirect trauma caused by their family members career.   

“It is during a time of crisis that response workers are at their best, but what happens to the helpers when they are done helping? What about their families?” she says.

The society serves peace officers, firefighters, 911 dispatchers, military families and emergency medical services. Many gather in Calgary to hear Harris explain how her experience grew direr over time. She developed night-terrors, began drinking excessively and abused her prescription drugs.

Two years later, Harris had to testify and see her patient again.

“That triggered my first experience of dissociation — I was outside my body, looking in,” says Harris. “That night, I overdosed,” she says. “I clearly couldn’t cope with the feelings and sensations that this call was causing me.”

Harris began her journey to mental wellness at a rehabilitation hospital and has been in recovery for four years. She retired as a paramedic and began to blog and speak publicly about her experience to reduce the stigma she previously hid behind.

“When I started to talk, I worried about how people would view me,” she says, speaking about the stigma that exists in the paramedic community. “There’s a lot of, ‘let’s get going to the next call, pull up your socks, move forward.’”

“Just because we have a uniform on doesn’t mean we are immune to anything that comes our way — we bleed the same blood as everyone else.”

FirstRespondersGraphicInstagram2Designed by Emily Dixon

Unhelpful narratives

Chris McIntosh, a retired Calgary paramedic, says the stigma in the first responder community is strengthened by comments like, “You should have known what you’re getting into.”

“The notion that we have a high amount of training, and that training should protect us from the human tragedy that we see, those are some of the narratives out there that aren’t helpful,” McIntosh says. “The public can do their part by changing the conversation that occurs, even around the dinner table.”

Another speaker, psychiatrist Dr. Lauren Zanussi, spoke about emotional processing. Emotional processing is a skill that has the potential to increase resiliency and facilitate a change of dialogue around mental health issues.

“I think we expect a lot of our [first responders] when we’re in crisis. I don’t think we’re always our best behaved, and I don’t think we always think of the people who are helping us as human beings,” says Zanussi.

“As long as we keep their humanity in mind, I think we do them a service in terms of their mental health.”

Teresa Coulter, a primary-care paramedic, described the gathering as “healing.”

“Being surrounded by almost 900 of your peers, there’s a reboot [of] energy, of hope. Our peers get it. When you have a psychological injury, you can feel quite isolated and fearful of its impact on your career.”

Coulter says that the conference is specifically helpful because it reminds first responders and their families that together they are a community.

Top photo source: Stock photo by JC Gellidon from unsplash by John Jennings under creative commons license.

Editor: Alexandra Nicholson |

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