Healing Trauma Through Art


June 11, 2024

Words by: Brandy Belitsky

Photography by: Dansun Photography

Daniel Sundahl’s creative approach to overcoming PTSD

Daniel Sundahl’s artistic journey didn’t start in the serene confines of a studio but rather, in the adrenaline-charged world of emergency services. Sundahl’s quest for adventure and a meaningful life had him overseas teaching English and exploring different cultures in his younger years. His journey led him to the Cayman Islands, where he learned water rescue techniques and trained as a divemaster. During this period, Sundahl experienced a pivotal moment when he witnessed a man struck by a dump truck. “I got out of my car and thought, ‘I’m going to save this guy,’” he says. The rush of adrenaline surpassed the fact that he had no idea what he could do for the victim, but it did plant the seed of becoming an emergency responder. 

Sundahl returned to Canada and pursued a career as a paramedic firefighter, embracing the challenges that came with the role. However, the demanding nature of his work eventually took its toll, manifesting as PTSD. Plagued by persistent visions of traumatic emergency scenes, Sundahl’s quality of life began to deteriorate. He sought the services of a psychologist who suggested using his hobby, photography, as a therapeutic tool. “I thought it was a horrible idea, I didn’t want to think about this stuff—that’s why I was in therapy. 

My psychologist told me I had to step into it and healthily process the trauma, in order to put it away.” Despite initial reservations, he began to create art from his traumatic memories. The method was transformative. “It saved my life,” he says. “When I’m done with an art piece, that memory no longer haunts me because I’ve trapped it in this two-dimensional picture and put it away.”

Sundahl’s approach to creating art is unique. He starts by using emergency workers to recreate the most haunting scenes from 911 calls he’s attended. He then photographs them, digitally enhances them, and incorporates symbolic elements like angels and ghosts to convey deeper emotional states. 

After two decades on the front lines, and now retired from active duty, Sundahl is working to become a counselling therapist to help others suffering from trauma. He is actively involved in speaking engagements and workshops where he discusses mental health, particularly focusing on post-traumatic growth. His efforts are also being channelled into establishing the Recovery and Resiliency Foundation, a charity to assist others in finding and affording the treatment they need to heal from trauma.

Through his art and advocacy, Sundahl aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues among first responders and broaden the understanding of how trauma can affect mental health. His work offers hope and recognition to those silently suffering.

Sundahl’s artwork is presented in four self-published coffee table books available for purchase on his website. His art is recognized worldwide and documented in several international publications. 


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