Alberta youth advocates are calling on its government to develop and implement a provincial youth strategy to address opioid and substance use as youth fatalities continue to climb and reach record numbers.
“The impact of the opioid crisis on young people and their families has worsened over the past three years,” said Del Graff, Child and Youth Advocate. “We need government to take action now to ensure young people have access to the continuum of services they need.”
Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanil, as well as prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, codeine, and morphine.
Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate have released a follow-up report on youth opioid use since the Advocate’s first report on this issue in June 2018. The data paints a bleak picture for the province's youth.
The total number of deaths related to accidental opioid poisoning among 0-24-year-olds in Alberta from 2016-2020 declined after 2017 for consecutive years from 84 to 62. During the COVID-19 pandemic, youth fatalities rose over 50 percent.
In 2020, 95 youth under the age of 25 died from accidental opioid poisoning in Alberta. So far in 2021, Alberta Health reported 29 deaths in the first quarter alone.
If this trend continues, the number of young people lost to the opioid crisis this year will be the most devastating on record.
The total number of opioid-related fatalities in the province nearly doubled from 623 to 1144 from 2019 to 2020.
“It is our hope as an office that we never have to write follow-up reports,” said Terri Pelton, Executive Director, Child and Youth Advocacy. “While we saw some action on our recommendations early on, it has not been sufficient to change the trajectory of this crisis for young people.”
The Child and Youth Advocate has the authority under the Child and Youth Advocate Act to complete special reports on issues impacting children and youth who are receiving designated government services.
“The 2018 Into Focus report made five recommendations to the Government of Alberta,” said Del Graff. “Over the last few years, there has been some progress on each of these recommendations.”
Previous recommendations from Into Focus, include:
- Increase the level of health promotion and age-appropriate substance use education in the curriculum from elementary through high school.
- Child-serving ministries should have appropriate risk identification and knowledge of how to connect young people and their families to appropriate services. This should be part of the provincial youth strategy.
- Strengthen their substance use-related interventions for young people. Special attention needs to be given to interventions specific to youth opioid use and to services for young people with co-occurring issues of mental health problems and/or cognitive disabilities.
- Youth Addictions and Mental Health programs should have a more inclusive practice of involving families and significant individuals, with specific attention to substance use prevention and treatment for young people.
- There should be a review of the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs (PChAD) Act, and its policies, so the related services better meet the needs of young people and their families.
Despite these efforts, Del Graff expressed grave concerns about the rise in opioid poisoning in recent years. “The death of each of these young people is a tremendous loss – to their families, friends, and communities who loved them and are impacted by their death,” he said.
Since the release of the initial report, from June 26, 2018, to March 31, 2021, 22 youth died of accidental opioid poisoning while within Child Intervention Services – 12 of whom were Indigenous.
During the consultations for this report, the Advocate heard from young people, families, professionals, and community members who shared their heartbreaking losses of family members and friends.
Several of the accounts of suffering and opportunities missed are of young people using substances to cope with the weight of personal and intergenerational trauma; young people whose self-worth and motivation to change was limited by the burden of stigma and feelings that no one believed in them; and those who made it through the long road of detox and treatment, only to be left on the other side without the ongoing supports they needed to sustain their recovery.
Tragically, the Advocate also learned of overdose deaths that followed periods of being clean and sober or happened after a young person was turned away from treatment.
“Each loss reinforces the need for governments and communities to work together to develop youth-specific approaches to addressing this issue,” said Del Graff. “It is my belief that we can – and must – respond to this issue with urgency and determination.”
The Advocate submitted an additional recommendation to the Alberta government this week, asking the Ministry of Health to establish a dedicated body to develop and support the implementation of a youth opioid and substance use strategy.
“I sincerely hope the recommendation made in this report is quickly acted upon, so no additional lives are lost,” he said.