Child and youth advocate asks schools to discuss substance abuse as early as elementary

Advocates for child and youth wellness agree that increasing awareness around substance abuse as soon as elementary school is a good idea — with some schools already tackling it as early as Grade 3.

In a detailed investigative review of the deaths of 12 teens in 2017 related to opioid poisoning, Alberta’s Office of the Child and Youth Advocate is asking the province to create a youth-specific response to the opioid crisis with a school curriculum that starts teaching students still in elementary school about substance abuse.

Child and youth advocate Del Graff makes the recommendation in the report released Tuesday that outlines the deaths of a dozen teens from overdoses of different opioids, including fentanyl and carfentanil.

David Kirby, clinical services manager at Distress Centre Calgary, says an increasing number of youths are feeling a deep sense of despair and uncertainty about their place in the world as they struggle with severe depression and anxiety.

“The amount of despair is pervasive … in terms of youths asking what is the value of my life,” Kirby said.

A struggling economy and the risks of bullying and harassment through social media are just two of many challenges that can lead to depression, anxiety and substance abuse, he explained.

“We need to envision innovative, new strategies addressing how to talk to youth that are hurt, that are in despair, that are coming from abuse, trauma and tragedy.”

Last year, Distress Centre volunteers responded to 5,561 online chats and texts from youths, a 115.2 per cent increase from 2016.

Barb Silva, spokeswoman for Support Our Students, an advocacy group for public education, said she would absolutely support earlier “age-appropriate” education around substance abuse.

“Kids are having a hard time, dealing with so many pressures to succeed,” Silva said.

“So this kind of education is especially important when our kids have less access to all the things that reduce their stress — like unstructured play, exercise, walking or biking to school.”

Last year, the province declared opioid-related deaths a public health crisis. The government has funded various projects to raise awareness and distribute life-saving kits containing the naloxone antidote.

Health Canada has also approved six supervised consumption sites in Alberta. But Graff says young people need more help.

“They are developmentally unique from adults. Their brains are still developing, which influences decision-making behaviour and emotional regulation,” he said.

Fentanyl deaths in Alberta have increased sharply in recent years. There were six deaths in 2011. By 2016, that had risen to 358. There were 562 fatal overdoses — including 76 young people — last year.

“Youth between the ages of 15 and 24 have the fastest-growing rates of emergency department visits and hospitalization due to opioid use,” said Graff. 

Education about opioids, as well as healthy living, needs to start early in elementary grades and continue through into high school, he said.

But local school districts, including the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School District, already begin health education in the elementary years.

Joanne French, spokeswoman for the Catholic district, says opioid use is part of health education, beginning to address substance abuse and addiction in Grade 3 with ongoing support for wellness, including mental health and addiction.

As well, the district is looking to work with the Calgary Police Service and Youth Addiction Services on a new pilot program that targets Grade 7 students, parents and guardians.

“We support students, their families and teachers through best practice recommendations and presentations, materials, resources on substance use, including tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, opioid and prescription medication.”

Joanne Anderson, spokeswoman for the public board, added that public schools also work with community partners “to ensure we are able to provide our students with the most up-to-date information about these important matters. We work with Alberta Education and AHS on initiatives that impact student health.”

with files from Canadian Press

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