Nearly 30 young Albertans died from opioid overdoses in the first three months of 2021.
“If this trend continues, the number of young people lost to the opioid crisis this year will be the most devastating on record,” says Alberta’s Child and Youth Advocate Del Graff.
Last year, 95 young people under the age of 25 died from opioid poisoning prompting Graff to produce a follow-up to his 2018 report called, “Into Focus: Calling Attention to Youth Opioid Use in Alberta.”
The follow-up released this week calls on the province to create a panel, committee or commission to develop and support a provincial youth strategy to address opioid and substance use.
“The impact of the opioid crisis on young people and their families has worsened over the past three years,” says Graff. “We need government to take action now to ensure young people have access to the continuum of services they need.”
In 2016, 64 young people died from opioids and 84 in 2017. There was hope that progress was being made when numbers fell to 71 and 62 in the next two years, only to soar 53 per cent last year. If the number of first-quarter deaths is repeated over the next three quarters, 116 young people will have lost their lives.
In Red Deer, a group has been trying to spread awareness and break the stigma around addiction and overdoses.
The third Leah’s Light 5K Walk/Run for overdose awareness will be taking place on Aug. 28. Last year’s event had to be postponed because of the pandemic.
Ashley Balan started the walk after losing her sister to a fentanyl overdose in 2018 and more than 90 people turned out for the 2019 event. More details of this year’s event will be posted soon on the Leah’s Light 5K Facebook page.
Since the release of the 2018 report, 22 young people died who had been in contact at some point with Child Intervention Services. Fourteen were female, seven male and one a transgender female. More than half — 12 — were Indigenous.
That report included five recommendations. It called for more health and substance use education from elementary to high school-age children. Government service workers who help children should have appropriate substance use intervention training and Alberta Health Services (AHS) should strengthen their substance use-related interventions with specific attention paid to opioid use.
AHS’s youth addictions and mental health programs should involve family members and significant individuals involved in the lives of the young people struggling with substance abuse. The report also calls on Alberta Health to undertake a review of the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs Act so related services better the needs of young people and their families.
Terri Pelton, executive director of Child and Youth Advocacy, says while they “saw some action on our recommendations early on, it has not been sufficient to change the trajectory of this crisis for young people.”