Alberta is on course to set a new record high for youth opioid-related deaths in 2021.
According to a new report by the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate Alberta, 95 people under the age of 25 died due to accidental opioid poisoning last year.
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Through the first quarter of 2021, 29 deaths have been reported, with Alberta currently on track to record the most devastating year on record.
According to the data, the total number of deaths related to opioid poisoning among those under 25 in Alberta in the last five years were:
- 2016: 64
- 2017: 84
- 2018: 71
- 2019: 62
- 2020: 95
Of the opioid-related deaths from June 26, 2018, to March 31, 2021, 23 per cent were between 12 and 17 years old, 64 per cent were female, and more than half were Indigenous youth.
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The report — called Renewed Focus: A Follow-up Report on Youth Opioid Use in Alberta — expands on an initial report from 2018. OCYA executive director Terri Pelton says the new edition includes updated recommendations for the province to slow down the crisis.
“That report [in 2018] had five recommendations, and we’ve seen some progress over the last three years but there hasn’t really been any traction,” she said.
“We would like to see a public body developed that includes those with lived experience providing input and feedback into developing and implementing a youth strategy.”
Pelton says a youth-specific strategy is key to ensuring that young people actually benefit.
“When you talk about harm reduction for young people, there’s a sense of, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t be doing that. They’re just kids.’ But if we don’t meet them where they’re at and stop them from dying, we can’t get to the intervention and the post-treatment,” she said.
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Lori Hatfield is the Lethbridge lead for Moms Stop the Harm. She says the numbers in the report are a sad reminder that existing services across the province are inadequate.
“It’s not surprising at all,” Hatfield said.
“When we have a provincial government that does not support harm reduction, the only way for our numbers to go is up. Because the only way that we’re going to get those numbers down is to have harm reduction in place for people who use drugs.”
Hatfield says she hopes the data serves as a wake-up call.
“You know they hear it, week after week, about numbers going up,” she said. “But when it’s involving youth, and those are our precious children, you would think that people would be stopping and saying, ‘OK, we have a problem here.’”
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Jason Luan, Alberta’s associate minister of mental health and addictions, responded to the report at the legislature on Wednesday, saying his heart aches for each life lost.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, I must say that COVID accelerated the whole crisis,” he said. “It’s spiked all over the place, including, in this case, the youth.”
Luan says he’s proud of the creative resources that the province has introduced recently, including some virtual and phone-based services that are especially geared towards youth.
“Doesn’t matter where you are, 24-7 you can access support services through one of those virtual ways,” Luan said. “For the youth population, as you can appreciate, they are the best-positioned ones to take advantage of this as compared to elderly and others.”
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Pelton says through talks with people across the province while compiling the report, it’s been made clear that more can be done to provide options for youth needing assistance.
“So often what we heard was that when young people are ready for detox, for example, the beds aren’t available,” Pelton said. “When they’re done detox and they come out of treatment or detox, there isn’t enough after-care support.
“So they’re kind of left, and then if they start using opioids again, their tolerance level goes down, and so they’re more likely to die from an opioid poisoning.”
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The OCYA is an independent office of the Alberta legislature that represents the rights, interests and viewpoints of young people receiving government services.
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