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Championing officer wellness: Lessons from 40 years of public service

April 25, 2024  By Lucie Tremblay

Image: Getty Images

I was born and raised in Trois-Rivières, Que., where I had my first opportunity to serve my community in programs that would shape my future. I joined the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets and volunteered to help develop a suicide prevention program at my high school. These two endeavours provided foundational training I would use throughout my career. It was 1985, the year proclaimed by the United Nations as the International Youth Year. At the time, my newly acquired skills in suicide prevention helped kids at school and were equally applicable to adults. Even then, prevention and early intervention were central to the discussion.

Little did I know 40 years ago that I would pursue a career in military and law enforcement where operational stress is prevalent and where officer physical and mental health has grown to become a major concern. Reflecting on my journey, I discovered how my career path has taken a direction where understanding common mental health challenges is critical. Self-care and the health of those around me are core values, and I have done my best over the years to be an example while promoting officer psychological and physical safety.

Concrete action toward first responder wellness has made incredible progress over the last decade. While turning pages of various police publications, the theme is ubiquitous and there is a growing interest for focused research and treatment. It is no coincidence that the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police’s strategic direction emphasizes support for building capacity and resiliency when it comes to the physical and mental health of police in Canada.

Current and future policing challenges require evergreen tools and services that will be there for personnel when they need them. This means taking a strategic view and making sustainable investments in programs that can be added to the officer toolbox. No matter the organization’s size, wellbeing must be central to the vision, mission and strategic plan. Promoting a culture of wellness requires a collective effort through law enforcement collaboration at all levels. Education and awareness need to be integrated into every developmental period in an officer’s career path and delivered just in time, from the academy to operational environments and the promotional process.


To develop a solid police wellness program and address the full spectrum of health challenges, organizations should look for help from local, provincial or national specialized groups and committees that can provide advice.

Police leaders are best positioned to promote positive change, set the tone and communicate organizational commitment toward health and wellness. A culture of wellness will be most effective if driven by leaders willing to speak up in support of their program and share their vision. Successful leaders will be proactive and will avoid reacting to crises by implementing temporary fixes. At the top of the chain, executives carry their bag of experiences and may have been impacted by post-traumatic stress injury. Such leaders can be authentic storytellers and will undoubtedly project significant impact in their communications. Personal experiences allow for an increased appreciation of today’s evidence-based advancements in the field and recognize positive impacts on officers and the entire organization. All management levels need to give equal amounts of attention to well-being strategies and be fully aligned. Failure to achieve such an alignment will likely lead to declining morale, mistrust between leadership and front-line, misallocation of program resources and officers not receiving the care they require. Moral injury is a real risk and can lead to increased absenteeism, and long-term physical and mental health impacts, up to and including suicide.

Our first responders deserve the best, but not every police service is equally resourced to establish a good program without neglecting important operational and administrative functions. While not every organization can hire psychologists or contract professional services, developing a network of resources and maximizing partnerships will be key to helping small and medium-sized services in identifying best practices, free or low-cost services and education. This will contribute to elevating the state of standardization of wellness support across jurisdictions and help build resilience industry-wide. To develop a solid police wellness program and address the full spectrum of health challenges, organizations should look for help from local, provincial or national specialized groups and committees that can provide advice. There has been a concerted effort in recent years to inventory best practices, services and learning tools that bring value when looking for help without a large investment. To avoid reinventing the wheel, police associations and your own networks are good places to start looking for guidance.

In conclusion, all managers – from frontline supervisors to chiefs of police – must keep in mind the complex ramifications of personnel wellness such as the impact on peers, teams and families. Remember that not all mental distress is work-related but will equally affect different facets of life. In the end, the state of well-being will impact the officer’s ability to perform, serve their community and meet public expectations. Today, services available to public safety personnel are more specialized and diversified than ever. Help is offered by experts specifically trained to help first responders. A few trends are emerging. Services are now being made available throughout an entire career, up to and including during the transition to civilian life and after retirement. To support the management of wellness programs, technology with affordable software solutions now exists for identifying personnel experiencing stress. This is an innovative step toward prevention that will increase your return on investment. And, looking at the topic more globally, it is comforting to see increasing care being extended to families of public safety personnel who accompany them on their road to recovery after years of work in high-stress environments.

Lucie Tremblay is the retired deputy chief of Via Rail Canada and retired Senior Officer of the Canadian Armed Forces.

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