VICTORIA — The mother of a teen who fatally overdosed says legislation in British Columbia that would allow youth to be involuntarily hospitalized for up to a week must be backed up with more residential treatment beds.
Rachel Staples, whose 15-year-old son Elliot Eurchuk died in April 2018, said short-term emergency care meant to stabilize youth is just a start in addressing the overdose crisis among young people.
"They don't have the facilities to accommodate what's going on in our province," she said Tuesday, adding wait times could be as long as four months.
"A week in a hospital just makes a kid angry. Say they do decide 'Yeah, I want out of this nightmare.' Then what? They need residential treatment where they can be monitored."
The proposed change in the Mental Health Act would allow youth under 19 to be kept in hospital for 48 hours to start in order to stabilize their condition.
Youth would be discharged when they are able to make decisions for themselves as part of a short-term emergency care plan at B.C. hospitals.
The proposed changes are aimed at allowing youth to be connected to supports and services in the community after they are discharged.
"They need residential treatment where you can put a child up to a month, in my opinion, so they can actually come down from that high and address what they're doing to themselves," said Staples, whose son was found dead in his bedroom.
He'd already overdosed on illicit substances in hospital where he was undergoing treatment for a blood infection that is common to intravenous drug users.
Youth, like adults, have been released from hospital after being given the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, without much information provided to their parents based on the youth's wishes.
Dr. Tom Warshawski, medical director for child and youth for the Interior Health Authority, said the legislation recognizes the profound vulnerability of youth.
He said clinicians would have a legal tool to help a youth take a pause in their drug use in order to have their medical and mental health needs addressed.
But Warshawski, who testified at an inquest last year addressing issues related to Eurchuk's death, also said residential treatment beds for youth are key to addressing addiction that may involve mental health issues.
Government-funded private beds are scattered around the province but there is no centralized intake service, meaning clinicians must call multiple facilities to learn about wait lists.
"In this way the provider, the family, enters into a maze and also the government has no idea how many beds they have and what their need is," Warshawski said.
"This situation is indefensible," he said, adding he has spoken with Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy, who agreed the province has to take action.
Other provinces, including Alberta, have provisions for involuntary treatment of addiction, he said, and B.C. must now lead the way on youth treatment considering its high number of overdose fatalities.
Darcy said in an interview the change would help ensure the immediate safety of young people in crisis.
The discharge plan would involve youth who may already have been introduced to health professionals that would be supporting them, she said.
The new legislation would also allow parents or guardians to have access to personal information about the youth's condition while they're in stabilization care, she said.
"That, I think, provides a lot greater clarity for parents and for physicians," Darcy said.
The Mental Health and Addictions Ministry said B.C. has 104 beds for youth who use substances.
Darcy said 20 more beds are expected to open in Chilliwack.
The province's chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said in a statement it is important that work being done to reduce the fear and stigma related to substance use is not undermined by the legislation.
"Without an established evidence-based, accessible system of substance-use treatment services, I am concerned there is the potential for serious unintended consequences as a result of these legislative amendments, including the potential for an increase in fatalities," Lapointe said.
— By Camille Bains in Vancouver
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2020.
The Canadian Press