Community Counselling & Resource Centre

Parents push premier to fill treatment gaps for addicted teens

https://www.thespec.com/news-story/8127636-parents-push-premier-to-fill-treatment-gaps-for-addicted-teens/

February 10th, 2018

When his father roused his son from a drug-induced slumber, he flew into a rage.

The 17-year-old ended up pulling a knife and locking his dad out in the freezing cold.

Now, his parents take turns watching him — constantly.

"We just kind of keep him down on what we call 'lockdown,'" says his mom, a school teacher who lives in Dundas.

Her son is addicted to drugs and alcohol. He has tried to kill himself, been in and out of hospital, in homeless shelters and jail.

She is one of many parents in Ontario who want government to do more for children struggling with addiction and mental illness.

The wait-list for government-subsidized beds at Pine River Institute, Ontario's only long-term residential treatment program for kids 13-19 with substance abuse problems, is 12 months for girls and 15 months for boys.

That can be a death sentence for struggling youngsters, says an advocacy group pushing the Ontario government to improve services.

"I think that's unconscionable," says Angie Hamilton, executive director of Families for Addiction Recovery (FAR), which met with Premier Kathleen Wynne in January.

FAR has asked Wynne to immediately invest in more treatment beds. There are 33 beds at Pine River, 29 of which are provincially-funded, leaving families to pay $650 a month.

The Canadian Mental Health Association has identified a $1.5-billion deficit when it comes to adequate funding for care in Ontario, with seven per cent of health dollars going to mental illness.

FAR is also asking the province to dedicate profits from pending government-regulated cannabis sales to services for addiction and mental illness.

Another request is to add naltrexone and acamprosate, which are used to manage alcohol and opioid addiction, to the Ontario Drug Benefits Program.

Wynne's press secretary referred a request for comment to Minister of Health and Long-Term Care Eric Hoskins, who wasn't available this week.

In an emailed response, Health Ministry spokesperson Laura Gallant said officials know "families need a simplified and improved mental health experience. ..."

"We know there's more to do, and we are all working together to improve Ontario's mental health system, so that every person in Ontario can get access to the care they need and deserve."

The Dundas teen, whose identity as a young offender is protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, started to suffer from mood swings and anger in early 2016, his mom says.

He started smoking pot, which has since led to "full-blown" substance abuse, including cocaine, methamphetamine and Xanax.

The mom says her son's addiction has pushed him to robbery to pay for his habit, which has landed criminal charges. After one stint in jail, police in Waterloo gave him back a bottle of Xanax, she says.

"That's when he overdosed at the homeless shelter. ... They found him unresponsive."

Doctors have admitted him involuntarily at McMaster's Children's Hospital and CAMH about six times, resulting in stays of 72 hours to 15 days.

She suspects her son has an underlying mental illness, noting at times he hears voices.

The last time he was at McMaster, he got out after 15 days. He told staff he planned to go back to school and get counselling — empty pledges that secured his discharge, his mother says.

"He knows how to behave to get out."

All the while, the mom says she has felt shut out with no say in her son's care.

In Ontario, there is no age of medical consent, which means medical professionals' hands can be tied if a young patient refuses treatment or wants information kept from family members.

"It's hard for us, because we would like to involve parents," says Dr. Jennifer Couturier, an associate professor at McMaster's department of psychiatry, and co-director of the children's hospital's eating disorders program.

Psychiatrists can deem young patients incapable of making decisions if they don't appear to "understand and appreciate" a proposed treatment, its risks and benefits, and what could happen if they don't accept it.

To hold patients involuntarily in hospital, they must be likely to cause harm to themselves or others, or be at risk of serious physical impairment due to a mental health problem.

"It's always a tough call," said Couturier, noting examples of such imminent risks could be suicide or homicide.

Hamilton argues overdose, sex work, jail, brain damage and homelessness — the attendant ills of not treating addiction and mental illness — should also be considered serious risks for young patients.

"Is that good for them?"

As it stands, many desperate parents pay thousands of dollars get their children into care in the United States, where the laws around consent are different, she noted.

Couturier spent time as a researcher at Stanford University in California, where the age of consent is 21.

"I can see the benefits of parents being able to make decisions for their children," she said, but noted the trade-off could be more conflict between youth and medical staff.

In Ontario, there could be an "opportunity for change" if enough parents spoke up, Couturier suggested. "I talk to parents all the time that are upset with the law."

In the fall, Hamilton and other members of FAR took their concerns to Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant.

The Liberal MP said the plan is to hold a day-long summit on May 11, which will bring together families, youth, scientists and researchers to explore the issues.

The second step is to write a report of the day's findings for the ministries of health and justice, he said.

"That's something we're very excited and very hopeful about," Hamilton said.