Detaining Youth Who’ve Overdosed Is the Wrong Move, Say Advocates

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Youth who suffer an overdose could be involuntarily detained in treatment facilities for up to seven days under proposed changes to  B.C.’s mental health legislation.

But some advocates say the  changes will increase youths’ chances of overdosing upon release, erode  their trust in health care and violate their human rights.

Laura Johnston, legal director of the non-profit group Health Justice, says Bill 22,  which would amend the Mental Health Act to include a form of “secure  care” for youth, was introduced by the government without public  consultation or engagement with affected families.

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And the Union of BC Indian Chiefs is  concerned that Indigenous youth and families will be disproportionately  detained and re-traumatized by the proposed system.

“Racism is far-reaching in  all of our institutions. If our Indigenous people are experiencing that  in ERs, they would also be experiencing that in mental health systems,”  said the group’s secretary-treasurer Kukpi7 Judy Wilson, referring to  the ongoing investigation into anti-Indigenous racism in the B.C. health-care system.

The failure to consult  First Nations on the changes to the Mental Health Act is also a  violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous  Peoples and the province’s own laws adhering to the declaration, Wilson  said.

“To see this legislation tabled during a  time when the reality of systemic and blatant racism towards Indigenous  peoples and other people of colour is undeniable, is extremely troubling  and emblematic of a system that seeks to oppress rather than to  support,” said Wilson.

The Ministry of Mental Health and  Addictions said in an email it consulted with the First Nations Health  Authority, the First Nations Health Council and other Indigenous health  organizations.

Similar secure care policies have been  implemented in a number of provinces such as Alberta and Quebec as a  means of preventing overdose deaths.

But a 2018 report co-authored by former B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall  found they harm youth living with intergenerational trauma and “may  represent a continuation of colonial policies and state repression of  Indigenous peoples.”

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And by forcing youth to abstain from  substances for seven days and then releasing them without continued  support, their risk of overdose actually increases, the report found.

“A week is basically enough time for them  to lower their tolerance threshold for using substances, so when you  release them… they could be at increased risk of overdosing,” said  Johnston.

Fear of detention may also drive fewer and fewer youth to call 911 or access supports when they are at risk of overdosing.

“You can alienate people from accessing  social services and health care,” said Johnston. “It creates this  chilling effect where youth don’t ask for help.”

B.C. also does not guarantee access to  legal advice to those involuntarily detained as other provinces do,  despite Attorney General David Eby promising to implement that right  last year.

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Parents and guardians would also be  excluded from decisions about their children’s care and detention if  Bill 22 passes in second and third readings beginning next week.

The B.C. government said it consulted with a  number of experts and Indigenous health organizations, and that  cultural safety is embedded throughout the legislation.

“It’s important to note  that youth stabilization care is a measure of last resort,” said a  spokesperson for the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions in an  email to The Tyee.

“These changes are just one piece of our  work to support young people and our main focus continues to be  continuing to build the voluntary system of care that young people need,  from prevention to treatment and recovery.”

But as overdose deaths in the province surge amid an increasingly toxic street drug supply, particularly among First  Nations individuals, Wilson and Johnston say an entirely new approach  is needed.

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“There is a really big gap in services, and you can’t fill a gap in services with the law,” said Johnston.

Wilson wants to see increased wraparound  services to support youth and families, including culturally safe and  Indigenous-led programs being funded directly.

She also wants to see more resources in rural and remote areas so youth can be supported within their communities.

“They go into the hospital and they are  detained, but the reason they are being detained is there’s nowhere else  for youth to go to get those services,” said Wilson. “The government  would have heard that if they did proper and adequate consultation.”

Bill 22 is past saving, Johnston and Wilson  agree. Instead, broad and deep consultation with families, youth,  experts and Indigenous community organizations is needed to modernize  the outdated act.

“The current system doesn’t go far enough  to be meaningful to the daily lives of our youth and our family who are  in crisis,” said Wilson. “They are facing obstacles on top of obstacles,  and change is vitally needed to save lives.”

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