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Path to treatment difficult to navigate for families of young addicts in B.C.

Worried about their teenage daughter's drug use and signs of depression, a Vancouver-area couple began to secretly monitor her life on social media. What they found propelled them into a desperate quest to find medical treatment: Their daughter, unwilling to talk with them, was openly discussing suicide, self-harm and an escalating dependence on hard drugs with her friends.

"I'm alive because I'm too scared to kill myself," she text-messaged one day. Other texts revealed that she was stealing to pay back debts to dealers, and her casual embrace of dangerous party drugs. She wrote that on one day, she did a "ton of e and the next a bit of mdma." The drugs may have numbed her depression in the short term, but only made things worse. "Why is it so impossible to be happy?" she posted to her network of peers.

Her father, who does not want his family identified, had no qualms about spying: It was a matter of her safety.

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"It was alarming. She averaged 400 texts a day. I got up early every morning, spent one-and-a-half hours going through each and every one, to make sure she was safe," said her father – call him Bill Smith. Now in therapy, his daughter has agreed to let her parents share some of her story to help raise awareness about the yawning gaps in care.

Unable to secure a treatment bed in British Columbia, the family ended up placing their girl in a therapeutic boarding school in the central United States. Nine months later, she is on the path to recovery, but at a steep cost. The family is paying $12,000 each month for her treatment, which is expected to carry on into next year.

How are they coping with the bills? "We're not," Mr. Smith said bluntly. "It redefines things. But with no viable options here, we had only one question: What is our daughter's life worth? Don't tell me I've got to give up. There was no choice for us."

The province has declared a health emergency to respond to a skyrocketing rate of overdose deaths – B.C. is expected to record the highest number of fatal overdoses this year in nearly 30 years of record-keeping, with nearly 500 lives lost in the first eight months of the year. But the number of options available to treat drug-addicted youth has not kept pace with the growing challenge. In fact, beds have closed, and although new ones are on the way, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake agrees more needs to be done.

But the bed-count alone isn't the sum of the problem, Mr. Smith noted. He and his wife, who both work, were consumed with the task of finding mental-health and addictions services. They would be referred to websites that were unnavigable. They were promised a treatment bed, but then the facility closed. Their daughter was referred to another treatment home, only to be turned away for more urgent cases.

Finding care in B.C. for youth with addictions has been a shattering experience for another family. The names are changed, again, at the family members' request. Their story begins when an active, competitive 18-year-old boy suffered a painful injury during a sports match three years ago. "John Brown" was handed a prescription for a highly addictive narcotic, Percocet. By the time he worked his way through the bottle of 100 pills, his young body was craving more. He found heroin.

His mother struggled to get her oldest son help while trying to protect her youngest child from the fallout. She owes thousands of dollars in loans to pay for private rehab services that failed. If he came home, John would steal and destroy things. The family was falling apart from stress, and he ended up on the street.

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"He was eating out of dumpsters," Mrs. Brown said. "He looks like a bone rack."

A little more than a week ago, John called his mother. "He said, 'Mom, I have to go to detox. I'm going to die on the streets.'" He found his way into a detox facility, but that's just the start.

"I'm really scared," Mrs. Brown said. "There can't be even a day between detox and rehab; he'll slip." She just learned a rehab bed will be available on Monday, but even then she worries: If he makes it through his 35 days of treatment, there is no guarantee that he'll get the supportive housing he'll need to put his once-promising life back on track.

Both families have underscored how difficult it is to navigate the health-care system for addictions. It's not just a shortage of beds, but there is no clear path to treatment. They can't locate what services are available, what kind of funding can be accessed, what qualifications the programs offer.

The Health Minister, Mr. Lake, said his government is investing in new beds, more support and in critical research to help determine just how to treat addiction. He acknowledged that finding services is not easy and said he expects improvements in the coming months. "It's frustrating and frightening for families, and as a policy-maker, its frustrating for me too," he said. A key challenge is that there is no standard model for addictions treatment. "We are in the early days of understanding mental health and substance use … It feels like we haven't made that great leap forward."

Sue Hammell, the New Democratic Party critic for mental health and addiction services, observed that the deadly path of fentanyl's rise has been charted since 2013, but addiction services simply have not kept up.

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"We could have a more robust mental health and addictions system to try to prevent the situation we have now," she said, referring to the fact that the province now expects as many as 700 people to die this year due to drug overdoses. "This is like two big planes crashing every year at Vancouver International Airport."

There should be an uproar, she said, but she suspects the stigma of drug addiction has muted the response. It helps to remember these are sons and daughters who need help.

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About the Author
B.C. politics reporter

Based in the press gallery of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria, Justine has followed the ups and downs of B.C. premiers since 1988. She has also worked as a business reporter and on Parliament Hill covering national politics. More

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