The provincial government is inching closer – but still behind – when it comes to providing additional support for young people living with substance use disorders.
Earlier this month, Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside announced 24 new publicly-funded substance-use treatment beds with 18 located at the Phoenix Society in Surrey and six at Covenant House in Vancouver.
“All of these opportunities for better treatment for youth are really vital to ensuring that youth with addictions get the help they need, that they deserve,” Whiteside said.
Whiteside’s predecessor Judy Darcy had announced in mid-August 2020 that the provincial government would invest $36 million to create another 123 treatment beds to double the then-existing numbers of beds. The ministry said at the time that all beds would be available in 2022.
Whiteside’s latest announcement means 47 of the 123 promised beds are either operational or soon to be operational. Another 10 of the beds announced are funded outside the investment for the 123 beds, so the total number of beds opened since August 2020 is 57.
The beds at Surrey’s Phoenix Society — which have been operational since May 2023 — serve men from across B.C. between the ages of 17 and 24 with severe and high-risk substance-use challenges who may also have moderate mental health-care needs. Their stay is three to six months.
These beds are free for patients and offer what experts call wrap-around support, including stabilization, intensive treatment and after-care services to help people return to their communities following treatment.
Susan Wannamaker, executive vice-president for clinical service delivery with the Provincial Health Services Authority, said the 18 beds will help young men, whom the toxic drug crisis has disproportionately affected and require care beyond what is available in their respective regional health authorities.
The six-publicly funded beds at Covenant House serve youth and young adults aged 16 to 24 living in Vancouver, including youth experiencing homelessness. An additional bed will be available at no additional charge through Covenant House under the oversight of Vancouver Coastal Health. Admission was set to begin on June 26 with stays depending on patient needs.
Plans are underway to bring the remaining beds on-line with 25 additional beds expected to open between the fall of 2023 and spring 2024.
Whiteside described the additional beds announced Thursday as part of her government’s “historic” commitment of $1 billion to build what she called an “integrated and seamless system” of mental health and addiction care, including $236 million for youth mental health and addiction services across the province.
She also pointed to other recent announcements, including the expansion of centres part and parcel of Foundry, a province-wide network of integrated health and wellness services for young people ages 12-24. Sixteen centres are currently open, eight are under development and 12 more are coming, she said.
The province is also building integrated child and youth teams that will bring together various agencies to help reach youth, she added. But Whiteside also acknowledged that more needs to be done by acknowledging a gap in data concerning the total number of children who may be struggling with substance use disorder.
According to the BC Coroners Service, youth aged 0 to 18 years and adults aged 19 to 29 years accounted for 14.2 per cent of all unregulated drug deaths in 2023 so far. That figure marks an improvement compared to previous years. In 2013, those two cohorts combined to account for just under 30 per cent of all deaths. But recent years have also seen several spikes in deaths among youth. In 2021 and 2022, for example, 31 and 34 youths up to the age of 18 died in relation to toxic drugs. The number of deaths in the 19-to-29 age group has also averaged close to 325 for 2020 through 2022.
While the majority of unregulated drug deaths happen within older cohorts — 49 per cent of all deaths in 2023 so far have involved individuals aged 30 to 49 — the deaths of youth and young adults possess an added dimension of tragedy.