Here’s what the Vancouver School Board is doing to help deal with substance use

Ministry of Education, Vancouver School Board review protocols in light of Victoria teen’s overdose death

It’s not too often the Ministry of Education gets called out in a BC Coroners Service inquest verdict.

But earlier this summer, the inquest into the death of Elliot Cleveland Eurchuk, who was 16 and died of an opioid overdose in Victoria last year, listed the education ministry first in its findings and a Vancouver School Board (VSB) manager agrees more can be done to prevent overdoses.

The Coroner’s jury calls on the ministry to develop processes for early detection of mental health and substance use disorders within schools, to have a plan to transition youth from addiction treatment back into schools and to educate students, parents, teachers and administrators on mental health and substance use disorders.

Eurchuk’s family told the inquest that being expelled from school was a turning point for him, Global News reported. He was an athlete who became addicted to painkillers after a sports injury and his family said they were not aware of the extent of his addictions.

As if that wasn’t scary enough for all parents of teenagers everywhere, this, of course, happened in a province facing an opioid crisis, in which about 100 people a month are dying from overdoses. In Vancouver alone, 127 people have died from drug overdoses so far this year, the most recent Coroner’s report shows. Overall, the numbers are slightly down this year, but still devastating. The vast majority of the people who died were older – 30 to 59 – but eight were younger than 19 and 79 were between 19 and 30.

Art Steinmann, VSB’s manager of substance use health promotion, said the district’s Supporting And Connecting Youth (SACY) program, in partnership with Vancouver Coastal Health, now has 13 staff members working to prevent drug misuse. The group does classroom education, usually to Grade 8 and 9 students, parent education and teacher training.

One initiative, called “Capacity Cafes,” sees students answering parent-generated questions about substance use, youth culture, the stresses of being a teenager and other subjects, Steinmann said. There’s an adult toolkit for parents whose children are regularly using cannabis designed to help them learn how to intervene, set boundaries and listen to the young person.

When students are transitioning back to school from drug treatment, sometimes the school may not even know because of confidentiality rules, Steinmann said. But if the team has been involved in the youth getting treatment, they would be involved when they return to school.

“I’m glad that the new ministry is taking some steps to develop a plan and looking at this closely,” Steinmann said. “There is absolutely no question in my mind that there is more we can do to support young people and their families in ways that will prevent or reduce the likelihood of serious drug issues and ultimately overdose deaths. Much more can be done.” 

When I asked the Ministry of Education what they were going to do to address these recommendations, I got a response from Judy Darcy, the minister of mental health and addictions.

“My heart goes out to Elliot’s family and friends,” Darcy said in an emailed response. “For too many years, families in B.C. have struggled to get their children the mental health and substance use care they need. Our government is working to change that.”

She says the government is reviewing the recommendations from the inquest and that families will be more involved in future cases, but that “care decisions, and care decisions involving minors, can raise challenging ethical considerations and decisions for clinicians.” 

In schools, five districts will get integrated child and youth teams to boost early intervention and prevention supports, Darcy said. The teams will include educators, peers, mental health and substance use workers, Indigenous support workers and others. Teachers and school counsellors will get more resources to identify students who need support, the ministry says.

The government will also open eight more Foundry youth centres, which it says are “one-stop shops” for health and wellness resources, services and supports.

“This is the start of a long journey, but we’re taking a new approach centered on early intervention and prevention to make sure that children, young people, and their families get connected to care early on before small problems become big ones,” Darcy said.

It sounds like the government, including the Ministry of Education, is taking this seriously. For Eurchuk’s parents and thousands of other parents worried about their kids, that’s a good thing.

As the VSB advocate says, there’s much more that can be done.

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