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Children’s rights watchdog questions B.C.’s plan to keep youth in hospitals after overdose

Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, is seen in Victoria on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018.
Jennifer Charlesworth, B.C.'s representative for children and youth, is seen in Victoria on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Dirk Meissner

B.C.’s children’s rights watchdog says she is “disappointed” in the NDP government’s proposal to allow young people to be kept in hospitals involuntarily following a drug overdose.

Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth has written a letter to the province about a bill that would allow hospital patients under the age of 19 to be admitted for stabilization care for up to 48 hours after a life-threatening overdose.

“I am disappointed by government’s move to create involuntary stabilization units for youth in the absence of a full array of voluntary community-based services to address substance use,” Charlesworth wrotes, listing supports such as voluntary detox and community residential treatment.

Read more: B.C. aims to allow young people to be kept in hospital after an overdose

“Without such a comprehensive system, hospitalization – and involuntary detention – becomes a potential default mechanism that may not even be effective because of the lack of appropriate and effective voluntary programs available after discharge.”

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Charlesworth’s office has written three reports since 2016 that call for the funding and creation of a comprehensive system of substance-use services to meet the needs of youth.

Read more: ‘It’s so wrong’: Family, peers call for justice in apparent overdose death of Langley teen

In her letter, she called the current system “woefully inadequate,” specifically pointing to a lack of publicly funded substance-use treatment beds for youth across much of the province.

She said the likelihood of relapse and resulting risk will be even greater if there is not adequate follow-up treatment available in the community once a young person is released from involuntary care.

B.C. government announces new mental health funding
B.C. government announces new mental health funding

“The proposed legislation attempts to address youth who end up in hospital after an overdose, but it won’t help those who don’t arrive at emergency rooms,” Charlesworth went on.

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“I am concerned about the deterrent effect this legislation could have on youth, who may be reluctant to call for medical help for a friend who overdoses if they are aware that such a call may result in an involuntary hospital stay for that friend.”

Indigenous youth will be disproportionately affected by involuntary admissions to hospital, she said, referring to their unfair treatment in the child-welfare and justice systems as well as to recently revealed racist allegations in the health-care system.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy has pointed to experts such as those at BC Children’s Hospital who have been advocating for such a bill for years.

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Youth mental health challenges during self-isolation

One mother, Kimberly Christianson, whose teenage daughter died of an overdose in 2017, also praised the legislation when it was introduced, saying she hoped it will increase support for youth and families who are struggling.

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The BC Liberals also say the NDP’s legislation does not go far enough.

“The NDP’s legislation falls short in filling any of the significant existing gaps in the youth mental health system and lacks the teeth to implement the services needed, including treatment and supports for those chronically addicted who do not present to an ER with an overdose,” critic Jane Thornthwaite said.