Police sometimes bring patients to the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury in Ponoka, but community peace officers are regularly contracted to work there. A former patient said this is heightening fear and tension among patients. (Black Press file photo).

Peace officers’ presence is traumatizing for Ponoka’s mental health patients, says Red Deer woman

“They are criminalizing mental health,” says Deborah Watson

The sight of armed peace officers at the Ponoka mental health centre is triggering trauma for many patients, says a Red Deer woman.

At a time when many Canadians are calling for police to no longer be dispatched to respond to mental health calls, Deborah Watson was shocked to see peace officers with weapons inside the Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury in Ponoka.

Watson was at the centre for three weeks to be monitored while she changed medication for depression and anxiety.

She described other inpatients being scared by the daily presence of peace officers at the hospital. Watson and others at the centre assumed the officers were carrying Tasers in their holsters.

But according to Alberta Health Services, peace officers at the hospital are only allowed to carry batons — not Tasers or guns.

While security guards are still employed at the Centennial Centre, Watson heard peace officers were introduced about a year ago. Many patients were still “freaking out” about them, she said.

“It’s terrifying… It increased the tension.”

Watson explained people with mental problems have often experienced negative encounters with enforcement officers who subdue them before bringing them to the hospital.

“Some of them have been beaten up by police.”

Although Watson only observed peace officers at the centre bringing meals to patients in isolation rooms, she doesn’t think their presence is necessary: “It’s like they are criminalizing mental health.”

Alberta Health Services maintains “protective services resources” are used at its facilities to ensure the safety of patients, staff and visitors.

“The primary mandate of these officers is to prevent and deescalate situations which have the potential to become volatile and provide the necessary intervention to ensure everyone’s safety.”

All AHS protective services members must complete tactical communications/deescalation training, and receive education about the Mental Health Act as part of the training to become a community peace officer.

AHS states they also train to identify “common mental health presentations, techniques for preventing escalating behaviour and … to help identify if a person is a risk to themselves or to the public.”

But Watson, who’s a former Michener Centre aide, recalled staff there handled whatever issue arose without the need for law enforcement.

Adding peace officers to a mental health setting is tone deaf to public sentiment, she added.

Many concerned people have been using Twitter and other social media platforms to call for removing police from mental health crises situations after a series of sick people were fatally shot by officers.

Watson believes mental health professionals are best trained to deescalate incidents involving people with mental illnesses.

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