Better leadership needed on youth substance use

This editorial appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of the Interior News. You can read or download the original here.

Many families are fortunate to not have to face a drug addiction crisis with their children. But a lot of parents do. Through strength, resilience, some support, and often a bit of luck, the outcome can be good. And then there are the times when things go terribly wrong, especially when the support cannot be found at important points.

Such was the situation for Nick Lang, a 15-year-old Metis boy who died last year less than a week after enrolling in a full-time addictions attendance program on Vancouver Island. He had been sent there as a condition of a youth justice sentence. A report last week by the independent office of the Representative for Children and Youth took an in-depth look at the circumstances that lead to Lang’s death. Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond found that even though Nick’s parents were strong advocates on his behalf, they couldn’t access suitable, culturally specific services to help address their son’s escalating substance use problem and turned to the youth justice system, after Nick had threatened his mother, as a last resort to get the help they needed.

From her investigation the Representative concluded there were a number of points along the way when, “Nick’s path might have been significantly altered had the proper supports been available or proactively offered to him and his family.” This report is not the first time Turpel-Lafond has made recommendations to the provincial government specifically on youth substance use services.

In May she highlighted a lack of leadership on the issue by the BC Liberals and revealed there are only 24 publicly funded residential substance use treatment beds to serve the needs of all youth in B.C. – something families in the North trying to access these services are acutely aware of as they experience delays.

If we really care about ‘families first’ in this province, then the choice must be made at the political level to provide leadership and appropriate resources. A good first step would be to give the topic the focus it needs by creating a stand-alone ministry dealing with youth mental health and substance use issues as recommended by both the Representative and the bipartisan Select Standing Committee on Children and Youth. It would be a fitting announcement to mark the completion in November of Turpel-Lafond’s strong tenure as the Representative.

– Doug Donaldson is the MLA for Stikine and the Official Opposition spokesperson for energy and mines.