Time's Up for Helping Teens
For the most part, the news about B.C. youth in the latest Adolescent Health Survey was good. Released last month by Burnaby's McCreary Centre Society--a nonprofit educational organization that focuses on young people's well-being--the report acknowledged that although rates of marijuana use and binge drinking among boys were up over the last decade, most teenagers are doing well. In fact, nine out of 10 say they are in good or excellent physical health. Suicide-attempt rates have remained constant, but at least they haven't gone up. Fewer teens are smoking and abusing drugs. Most are waiting until they are older to have sex. And obesity rates are lower than the national average.
Compare this to the reality of adolescents in England, where things are so bleak--thanks to increased rates of smoking, substance abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases--that a British Medical Association report released in March called the situation "a public health time bomb". In the light of England's experience, B.C. parents and health officials alike breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But not everybody exhaled. Nichola Hall most certainly didn't. A mother of two from Kerrisdale, she's one of the founding members of From Grief to Action, a support network for parents of kids with addictions that has evolved into a committed advocacy group. Her son, now 23 and undergoing methadone treatment, was hooked on cocaine, then heroin, by the time he was 18. He and his mom, and others like them, are the faces behind the not-so-good news in the McCreary report, the high-risk kids and their parents from every demographic who say they are left to overcome addiction on their own or hit the bottom in a system that offers little or no help.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight from her office at UBC, where she works as continuing-studies program director, Hall said resources for youth with addictions are appalling. "Vancouver's drug problem is the worst in Canada, yet Quebec and Ontario offer far more services," she said. "There's only two youth treatment centres in B.C. [Peak House in Vancouver and Revision in Terrace]. That's 12 beds for the entire province. And when a kid admits they're dependent and wants treatment, you've got to pick it up right away, otherwise that opportunity is missed."
According to Viviana Zanocco, media-relations officer at the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, which, under the Liberal government, is responsible for addictions services for youth and adults, such resources are being expanded.
"We're looking to match client needs with a broader range of programs, such as home-based detox or daytox, in which clients go to a program during the day and go home at night," Zanocco said in a phone interview.
However, members of the FGTA group say they don't believe such treatments are effective for teens. "Kids can just go to counselling during the day and have their drugs at night," Hall said. "We need good residential centres with three-month stays, at least."
But money and resources for such costly programs are already stretched thin, Zanocco said. "We can't just add beds. We have to look at the preventive side too and harm reduction." And apparently, there's a more immediate problem. "What we're really concentrating on right now is this whole methamphetamine thing, where kids are ending up in the emergency wards. We don't know anything about the short- and long-term effects, nor about effective treatments. It's an acute problem, especially in downtown south." (The McCreary survey refutes claims of escalating crystal-meth problems.)
Who are the teens making lousy choices? During an interview at the McCreary Centre, Dr. Roger Tonkin, retired UBC pediatrics professor and chair of the society's board, said there are certain signs parents should watch for. "Kids with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or attention-deficit disorder are at risk. So are obese kids, or children who look older than they are or who run away." There's no shortage of the latter; according to the survey, one in 10 teens ran away from home in the last decade.
Common to them all, according to Pat Mauch, a public-health nurse with the VCHA and part of the McCreary report's project team, is low self-esteem. "These kids are dealing with something that sets them apart, an especially tough thing when you're a teenager. But all kids will be exposed to risky choices. If they are resilient, if they feel good about themselves, believe they can make good decisions, they'll make them."
Hall's son fit the profile. As a child, he had severe ADD and didn't make friends easily. "Ritalin never suited him," recalled Hall, "but cocaine did the job nicely."
The trouble, Tonkin said, is that people often don't see the signs until it's too late. "Parents, schools, and communities need to rethink their approach to high-risk behaviours in adolescents. We wait until they're apprehended by the cops or addicted to drugs before we intervene."
Owen Perry, a youth and family counsellor with Family Services of the North Shore, has worked with hundreds of high-risk young people and their families. He agrees with Tonkin, explaining that many of his clients come to him too late. "I was in youth court yesterday," Perry said on the line from his office in North Vancouver, "and the judge had to decide whether to punish this kid or give him a chance to rehabilitate." Perry believes if more money went into programs that promote positive parenting or help single-parent families, judges wouldn't have to make such agonizing decisions.
He's not the only one. Research linking positive conditions in early childhood--such as a nurturing environment and a sense of community--to well-being throughout life is well-documented. In fact, recent studies by Dr. Clyde Hertzman, a leading epidemiologist at UBC, have demonstrated that support and caring in early childhood are critical factors for brain development, influencing a child's capacity to thrive later in life.
The McCreary survey also supports such findings. "By fostering connections, competence, coping skills, and responsible behaviours, parents and educators can prevent problems from developing and enable youth to face challenges creatively," the report reads.
In the meantime, adults shouldn't give up on troubled teens, even in the bleakest of circumstances, insisted Perry, who works with a couple of young boys, 12 and 16, whose mother was brutally murdered when they were old enough to be acutely aware of the horror of it. "They are now living with the grandparents, who aren't perfect, but they are providing warmth and compassion and love. Yes, the kids are struggling with school. And perhaps they'll struggle with addiction, but I can tell you this: without those grandparents, they'd be in jail."
His message to parents: "Hang in there. Say to your kids, 'Look, you're going to screw up, but we'll be here for you when you do.' And then constantly work at connecting with them. Every day. As often as you can."
It's no guarantee, but it may just be the best option out there.