Smashing the stigma around mental health

By Ashlea Witoslawski

Local emergency services personnel smashed the stigma surrounding mental illness yesterday with the help of artist Daniel Sundahl and The Code 9 Foundation.

Working as a paramedic and firefighter in Canada, Mr Sundahl discovered art as a form of self care to help deal with the trauma and stress of his job.

Creating works based on his own experiences as a first responder, Mr Sundahl’s art quickly became famous across the world as relatable images for others who work in the field, while giving others a glimpse into the rewarding, yet sometimes difficult career.

‘‘Over the years it’s grown into this global awareness because I use the images to raise awareness for PTSD and mental health,’’ he said.

‘‘I use the influence that I now have in my images to further promote that, lower stigma and kind of normalise the whole process for mental health for first responders.

‘‘The reality is that it’s quite damaging and it’s killing a lot of us.’’

Mr Sundahl said it was important these conversations became common in the work environment and believed his visits as an outsider helped keep communication open.

‘‘Sometimes it’s easier for an outsider to come in and shake the tree a bit and I am happy to walk around the world and shake the trees and do what I have to do for my brothers and sisters and other first responders to make it a little bit better for them,’’ he said.

Mr Sundahl spoke to local emergency service personnel about his personal battle with mental health, including his signs and symptoms, as well as his experience with post-traumatic growth, resilience and recovery.

‘‘Even though I’m from another part of the world we all have similar experiences, we all suffer mental health issues in a similar way,’’ he said.

‘‘In my particular case it really kind of snuck up on me. I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know the trouble I was in almost until it was too late.’’

Mr Sundahl said the overall goal of his talks was to create equality between physical and mental injuries.

‘‘We don’t look at mental injuries the same as physical injuries,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m confident that will happy eventually, but we still have a fair way to go.’’

Mr Sundahl was visiting different groups across Victoria to share his message with the support of The Code 9 Foundation.

The Code 9 Foundation provides peer-to-peer support for first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions.

Don Gillies and Julie Scollary from The Code 9 Foundation were with Mr Sundahl in Shepparton and involved in spreading his message of positivity.

The group said the response to Mr Sundahl’s talks had been very positive.

‘‘I think you guys are ahead of the game here,’’ Mr Sundahl said.

‘‘I wish other parts of the world had this level of consciousness, awareness and acceptance that it’s okay to talk about this stuff.

‘‘It’s something we need to talk about.’’

Mr Sundahl’s artwork has developed quite a large follower base in Australia, but he had not had the chance to depict Victorian ambulances or Australian uniforms.

‘‘I really wanted to represent that in my artwork, knowing that if I did, that would push the message even further and make it even more significant and even more powerful,’’ he said.

Shepparton Fire Brigade’s Craig Lewis said the event was attended by local emergency service workers from the CFA, Ambulance Victoria and Victoria Police.

‘‘We have become more accepting of our mental health and more aware of it,’’ he said.

‘‘There are things happening in the space and this just adds to that forward momentum.’’