South Simcoe Chief of Police shares the importance of mental health with students

For John Van Dyke, Chief of Police for South Simcoe Police Services, personal resiliency is one of the greatest attributes any leader can have. Leaders must rise when faced with a challenge, and in the policing industry, things can happen unexpectedly. How you react in times of hardship and loss can define an entire organization, and putting people first becomes essential.

Chief Van Dyke recently visited the Orillia Campus to speak with current Georgian students about his experiences in policing and how he manages the immediate and ongoing mental health of his officers, staff and the community. Students from the Honours Bachelor of Police Studies, Protection, Security and Investigation, Police Foundations and Honours Bachelor of Counselling Psychology programs were there to listen in.

During his presentation, Chief Van Dyke shared what he’s learned throughout his 34-year policing career and how he’s driven to continue reducing the stigma surrounding mental health of police officers. “Front-line workers are often told they need to be brave and not show weakness,” he says. “Times have changed, but there’s still work to be done with mental health in our organizations.”

A large group of students from Georgian College community safety programs stand in a classroom with the South Simcoe Police Service logo on a screen behind them.
Chief Van Dyke (left, front row) had important conversations with students about mental health in the policing profession.

As leaders, we need to show our human side. A chief is only as good as their team, and it’s okay to be vulnerable and connect with each other when support is needed.

Implementing mental health supports

“When any organization experiences a loss, immediate follow-up support is top of mind. Mental health services are optional, but we make sure people know it’s there for them for as long as they need,” Chief Van Dyke adds. “Being a leader in these situations is difficult, but it’s my responsibility to do most of the heavy lifting. Putting people first is my number one priority and reminding them to take the time they need to grieve and recover.”

Some ways Chief Van Dyke helps his staff find support:

  • Have those involved in traumatic events (officers, dispatchers and other staff behind the scenes) attend de-brief sessions. Simply asking “How are you?” can go a long way.
  • Provide referrals for long-term mental health supports, tailored to first responders.
  • Bring support dogs, counsellors and psychologists on site for the team.
  • Engage with return-to-work specialists to build confidence and comfort.
  • Encourage staff to take breaks, talk to each other and have an informal support system.
  • Give staff a sense of belonging. Be inclusive and offer mental health supports for EVERYONE.
A man in a policing uniform stands at a white Georgian College podium in a classroom with the South Simcoe Police Service logo on a screen behind him.
Chief Van Dyke shared his stories of personal resilience and how that has helped him in his career.

Chief Van Dyke’s message to students was to prepare for and understand the career of policing. “In this job, there’s no playbook, but remember that you have an entire team behind you,” he says. “It’s important to start building resiliency now and take every opportunity to gain hands-on experience.

“In terms of mental health, take care of yourself. Have those support systems in place and talk with people about positive things often. And take advantage of professional services if needed.”

Students take away new perspectives

Two students from the Police Foundations program, Olivia Chartrand and Hannah Cormier, shared some of their takeaways from the lecture with us.

“Listening to Chief Van Dyke speak was very inspiring and made me realize the true reality of policing,” says Olivia. “It opened my eyes to how important it is to be prepared for negative moments and take care of those around you. There’s always that ‘what if?’ thought, but I’m excited to be part of this profession one day and build connections with my team and community.”

The students are currently learning about mental health recovery following a disaster in their emergency management class. Hannah says the takeaways from this lecture will help her understand protocols and processes in a different lens. “Mental health isn’t talked about enough in this industry. Before, people have been taught to push their feelings to the side, but Chief Van Dyke encouraged us to accept that we’re human. We’re not invincible and it’s okay to take a step back.”

Interested in a career in community safety or human services?

The curriculum in our Protection, Security and Investigations program, and policing programs covers a variety of topics, preparing students for their careers in law enforcement and other front-line response services. Students learn a critical mix of professionalism, technical and legal expertise, and analytical skills, as well as gain field experience and network with potential employers through co-op opportunities. All of this combined makes them competitive candidates in the eyes of police agencies.

Whether your dream is to become a police officer, member of the Canadian Armed Forces, RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) or serve your community in other ways, Georgian has a pathway for you.

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