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An RCMP officer stands among Vancouver Police officers during a memorial for Abbotsford Police Constable John Davidson on Nov. 19, 2017.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mental-health advocates are praising a British Columbia police chief for his leadership after he made an impassioned plea for first responders to take care of their mental well-being.

Abbotsford Police Chief Bob Rich made his comments toward the end of a 25-minute speech on Sunday at a ceremony honouring Constable John Davidson. The Abbotsford traffic officer had been responding to a report of a stolen car two weeks ago when he was killed in a daytime shootout that has numbed the Fraser Valley community and drawn the province's first responders together in mourning.

After providing more details on what happened the day of Constable Davidson's death and reflecting on what his colleague was like as a friend and officer, Chief Rich told the crowd of about 8,000 police officers, military personnel, paramedics and search-and-rescue members that he wanted to speak to them as first responders. When an officer dies in such a tragic manner, he said, "we lose more than just that first officer. We lose other people who have been traumatically affected.

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"If you get hurt because you've responded heroically on behalf of this community, doing your job, then I want you to take a knee," Chief Rich said, pacing the stage. "I want you to get help. I want you to talk to a counsellor. I want you to ask your family to bear you up. I want you to take sick days. I want you to put in a claim. I want you to do whatever it takes so that you are well and that when you step back out on the street to protect our community, you are able to do it because you have looked after yourself."

There must be a culture shift in policing, he continued. "Sucking it up" is no longer an acceptable response.

"If you [get help], you will be stronger the next time you have to do something that difficult," Chief Rich said. "If you fake it and pretend you're better, the next thing is going to break you in half, and we will lose you."

An August study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry concluded that Canadian public-safety personnel such as police officers, paramedics, firefighters and correctional workers experience "substantial and heterogeneous difficulties with mental health" at much higher rates than the general public. More than a quarter of 5,813 participants (26.7 per cent) reported symptoms consistent with two or more disorders.

Bev Gutray, chief executive of the Canadian Mental Health Association, observed that it was unheard of for a police chief to make such comments a decade ago and noted that this is one area that is actually undergoing a sea change in attitudes. She praised Chief Rich for helping advance the dialogue about first responders' mental health.

"I am just very proud as a British Columbian and I'm very proud as a mental-health advocate, to see that kind of leadership that says, 'This is about the mental health and wellness of our work force,'" Ms. Gutray said.

"He didn't simplify it. He didn't say, 'Oh, if we just took one more training program.' He really addressed it in its complexity. It's about the organizational culture and knowing that even if you get treatment for PTSD today, it doesn't mean you won't have another episode, or a vulnerability, in the future. His message was really about: Let's catch it early."

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Erin Alvarez, a spokeswoman for the TEMA Conter Memorial Trust, which provides support and training for public-safety personnel and their families, likewise applauded the chief for leading what she called an imperative change.

"Chief Rich's remarks prove that change is possible within policing and within the uniform world as a whole," Ms. Alvarez said. "There is no room for the old 'suck it up' mentality. It is one of the major causes of the suicide epidemic in our country."

Other police forces, including the RCMP and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) have made similar efforts to support their employees' mental well-being. On top of critical incident stress debriefings following potentially traumatic events, the VPD offers service education and workshops that help identify, for example, when a co-worker might need help and how to get it. The RCMP in 2014 launched a mental-health strategy for employees that includes mandatory workshops on mental readiness.

Earlier this year, BC Emergency Health Services began offering paramedics psychological resilience training, in large part owing to the province's opioid crisis, but also so members are better able to navigate the acute stress they encounter on the job.

Glen Wilson, an armed-forces veteran who worked at prisons across B.C. for two decades and instructed aspiring correctional officers for another decade, said first responders in many places are now being urged by their supervisors to talk about any trauma they have experienced on the job.

"Holding it in? Why carry that baggage?" said Mr. Wilson, now retired, who showed up two hours early to Constable Davidson's service Sunday wearing his Correctional Service Canada uniform.

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"You've got a long, rude march ahead in life, so why carry that extra baggage."

With a report from Mike Hager

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