Natalie Harris, an advanced care paramedic in Ontario, Canada, shares her personal journey battling depression and addiction from a post-traumatic stress injury she suffered on the job.
This harrowing story of a first-responder’s mental health journey from illness to healing is a MUST READ for anyone who works in public-safety.
Earlier this year, Harris published her first book, Save My Life School: A first-responder’s mental health journey, which is based on her personal blog. The book has received much praise from both first-responders and mental health professionals. That acclaim has given Harris a new mission to change the culture in public-safety by abolishing the negative stigma first-responders face when seeking professional mental health services for help.
The book starts fast out of the blocks, throwing readers into the middle of a mental health crisis personally experienced by Harris. She shares that she has been battling mental illness that required hospitalization and enrollment in an intensive out-patient program called, “Save My Life School”. Harris later flashes back for readers and shares what has happened in her personal life, as well as her professional career, that has brought her to this heartbreaking point.
Harris became pregnant at the age of 18, while still in high school. Her mother responded by dropping her off and leaving her at a home for unwed mothers that was run by nuns. A year later, Harris gave birth to her daughter when her mother suffered a medical emergency and she became the primary caretaker. During this time, she put herself through paramedic school, all the while acting as her mother’s caretaker, working as a waitress, and raising her own daughter as a single parent. Harris served as an advanced care paramedic for over a decade before her life was forever changed by a call to which she responded.
On May 2, 2012, Harris responded to a double homicide at a hotel, where two women were brutally killed in an attempted murder-suicide. Harris arrived at the scene and treated the suspect, who survived. She managed to cope for two years, until the day she had to face her patient in court and testify. And so began her battle with anxiety, depression, and addiction in coping with this post-traumatic stress injury and the accumulation of chronic stress.
For the rest of the book, readers join Harris in her recovery and journey to healing. She extends a personal invitation to readers as they accompany her to medical doctor visits, hospitalizations, psychiatric doctor visits, psycho-therapeutic treatments, and group therapy meetings while attending an out-patient mental health program. This is no textbook case-study. Harris offers readers an intimate look at the chronic stress that first-responders face every day at work and readers see the devastating toll it can have on the professional careers and personal lives of those who work in public-safety. But Harris’ story does not end there.
Harris does a brilliant job of sharing the tragic circumstances that led her down a very self-destructive path fighting depression and addiction. However, she does an even better job of sharing her recovery. Harris is completely transparent with her struggles and what steps she had to take to find healing. After reading about Harris’ injury, no one could fault her for using mechanisms like alcohol and prescription medications to try and cope. But Harris shows readers how she found the courage within to summon strength unknown to battle the demons that haunted her, ultimately leading to her recovery and healing.
Although Harris has recovered and is healthy today, she proves that healing is a journey, not a destination. She makes it a daily task to prioritize her health and well-being. As the story continues, Harris has been presented tremendous opportunity to effect cultural change in the field of public-safety to benefit all first-responders. Harris has played a critical role in lobbying for the passing of the Ontario First-Responder’s PTSD Bill 163, which achieved Royal Assent in April 2016. She created the Wings of Change Peer Support Program, a public-safety peer support model supporting first-responders that has several different chapters throughout Canada. She recently finished filming a documentary that follows different first-responders through their journey recovering from post-traumatic stress that will be aired on CBC in Spring 2018. In January, Harris is hosting her 2nd Annual Evening for Mental Health to benefit #IveGotYourBack911, an international social media campaign bringing awareness to emergency first-responder mental health. Harris is a popular public speaker and she just published her second book: Daily Lessons from Save My Life School.
Harris has done great things to advocate and champion for the rights of first-responders in Canada to ensure they receive professional mental health support services when needed. Her greatest achievement, however, is sustaining her own health. In so doing, the culture in public-safety is starting to change as the field comes to understand that it must better support the men and women who work as police officers, firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers, and all other public-safety professionals. Harris’ story of survival reminds the world that first-responders are only human… just ordinary people who do extraordinary things in service to others.
CLICK HERE to order your copy of Save My Life School.
CLICK HERE to order your copy of Daily Lessons from Save My Life School.