December 5, 2018 1:18 pm
Updated: December 5, 2018 9:07 pm

Vancouver Island University launches new program to help children affected by opioid crisis

Students and faculty at Vancouver Island University are launching what's believed to be Canada's only program to help heal children caught up in the opioid crisis. Abigail Bimman reports from Nanaimo, B.C.


Students and faculty at Vancouver Island University are launching what they believe is the only program of its kind, specifically for children caught up in the opioid crisis.

Shine, as it’s known, will roll out group sessions in late January in Nanaimo for children and teens who have been impacted by overdoses.

WATCH: The impact of Canada’s opioid crisis on children

“To create space in the community so that we can come together and we can understand what the impact is,” said Teri Derksen, a VIU professor with the Child and Youth Care Program.

Derksen says since the crisis is relatively new, there’s much to learn about exactly how children are being impacted. No one in Canada keeps statistics on how many children have been affected, either.

One thing the VIU group has learned so far is the reach is widespread. Children who directly witness an overdose or lose a family member aren’t the only ones affected.

“We’re also learning that young people are touched more indirectly — social media. They have a friend of a friend or their cousin or another family member, or they’re seeing it on TV or the news or they’re seeing it in places that they work,” said Derksen.

WATCH: Six mothers who lost their children to fentanyl and carfentanil talk about what needs to change

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Some mothers tell Global News they know exactly how overdoses have affected their children, and say the health effects are serious.

Lisa Thow’s daughter was five years old when she went upstairs to call her dad for dinner — and found him unresponsive in his bed from an overdose.

“Her counselling is very intense,” said the Nanaimo mom.

“We’re going through the trauma counselling right now because now we’re having, even though she’s 14 — when it happened at five — she’s now having flashbacks of seeing him. And he had basically took his last breath in front of her, and it was her father.”

Thow said her daughter and younger son are both affected by the trauma to this day.

“They have severe PTSD, anxiety, depression. My oldest actually is diagnosed with bipolar.”

Lisa Thow’s children at 6 and 4, about the time when their father nearly died of an overdose.

Lisa Thow

She feels her children have been supported over the years, by police and at their school, with multiple counselling options. But she’s thrilled to hear about a program like Shine for other children.

“I see a lot in the community of children that are suffering and just being shuffled off into foster care and being forgotten about.”

While there are no statistics available in Canada, there are some south of the border that back that up. According to the U.S. Department of Health, between 2013 and 2015, the number of children in foster care jumped by nearly seven per cent.

Substance abuse by a parent was a factor in a third of those cases – and that’s up 10 per cent from 2005.

READ MORE: Number of newborns apprehended by Sask. social services climbing

Thow constantly worries about one of her own stepsons, also impacted by his father’s overdose.

“I haven’t seen him in over seven years. I’ve tried reaching out.”

She says he’s living somewhere on the streets in Vancouver – and using drugs like his dad.

“I think responses can be very unique for each person and we need to honour those responses,” said Derksen.

While it’s too early for Shine to show exactly how children are affected, Derksen said some, if not all participants, have experienced some kind of trauma. There’s much more research on that topic.

While reactions are different for everyone, Derksen says they include “a disrupted sense of safety, difficulty with regulating emotions and behaviours, depression, irritability and other physical symptoms.”

READ MORE: For child abuse survivors, it can be tough to overcome trauma. Here are ways to cope.

But when children come together at Shine this winter, they won’t necessarily delve deep into those symptoms.

“The intention isn’t to focus on grief or loss or some of those heavier topics,” said Emma Gillis, Shine’s dialogue co-ordinator.

“It’s providing that space for children to come together and know they’re not alone in this. And also creating space for their feelings, but also having fun together and building that sense of belonging and community in these children.”

Gillis was a third-year student doing her practicum in VIU’s Child and Youth Care program when Shine began to come together in 2017. Through a grant from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, she now works part-time for Shine leading community dialogues.

The dialogues aren’t for children, but aim to bring together service providers and first responders who may help them in crisis. That includes those in a formal first responder role, as police or paramedics, and informal, like a coach, dance teacher or librarian.

“We started to recognize, oftentimes, community members are the first responders, so how can we support them in this as well?” Gillis said.

She hopes to host 10 events in 2019, and she’s already heard from half-a-dozen organizations on Vancouver Island hoping to take part.

“I would like people to know that it’s OK to talk about this with children. It doesn’t have to be this taboo subject,” said Gillis.

“I’d like to help people get to a place where they can hold that place for that child to explore those feelings, and if that’s too much for them, provide them with something they can refer the child to.”

Part of Shine’s goal is to fight the silo problem that often occurs in health care, and make sure that everyone in Nanaimo is aware of the services available.

Stigma is an important part of the picture, too.

“Substance use is one that comes with the most complex burden of stigma,” said VIU instructor and member of the Shine working group Stephanie McCune.

“That stigma is really based on the values, beliefs and attitudes that we hold as a society. And when I think about children who are in the process of forming identity and of seeing and experiencing themselves, stigma can be so impactful in such a negative way.”

McCune says part of the project is to try to stop the stigma so people will access the help they need without being afraid of judgment or blame.

WATCH: Challenging the stigma surrounding opioid addiction

Derksen says she’s been told many times no one else in Canada is focusing on children caught up in the crisis. Some experts believe that’s because the focus is still on stopping the raging overdose epidemic.

But she hopes the work being done at their small school on the country’s western edge can help children across the country, since for so many people, living with opioid use and overdoses has become the “new normal.”

“We’re not alone in this,” said Derksen. “I think we can all learn from one another and we’re happy to share what we’ve learned along the way.”

In the meantime, the program is already giving back to those who helped launch it.

“We call it feeding two birds with one scone,” Derksen said of the fulfillment the programming can provide for students.

“I am beyond grateful to have been placed on this project,” said Gillis.

“After my time as a student, I’d love to see this project develop and go further and inform practice on a more national level.”

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