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B.C.’s top doctor concerned about substance use among children, youth

Safer supply review notes there is some diversion, but hesitant to point blame
B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry steps away from the podium after speaking during a news conference in Vancouver, on Monday, January 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

B.C.’s top doctor says special attention needs to be paid to children and youth impacted by pandemic, and how that could relate to substance use.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Thursday (Feb. 1) there’s limited data currently on substance use among children and youth, but “we need to do better on addressing the spectrum for youth and young adults who disproportionately suffered” from the measures put in place over the last few years during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to pay attention to that because we know mental health and anxiety issues in teenagers and young adults have increased, and these are being exacerbated. We know that when mental health issues go up, the use of substances to help deal with those issues also goes up.”

READ MORE: B.C. top doctor calls for more kinds of safe drugs to be available to those in need

Those findings were part of a report to government on Thursday from Henry who had been tasked with reviewing B.C.’s prescribed safer supply program. In the report, it noted that safer supply could include potential harms, such as the supply being diverted to groups it wasn’t intended for: children and youth.

While “some diversion is occuring,” the extent of the impacts are unknown and the report added that B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth Jennifer Charlesworth said “there is no indication” from available data that children and youth have been using diverted safer supply medications at a significant scale.

According to the report, diversion of hydromorphone has been reported by staff and clients and a “common occurence,” possibly due to some people using the program already have a high opioid tolerance. Some safer supply clients reported diverting their hydromorphone in order to obtain other substances that better meet their needs.

“Where we’ve had, for example, very high rates of fentanyl for a long time, and people who have a very high tolerance to high doses of opioids, and were prescribed safer supply with the limited options that were available, (hydromorphone) was not a very effective tool for the vast majority of people there,” Henry explained.

The report adds there are anecdotal reports that have suggested youth “may increasingly be accessing diverted hydromorphone,” however current B.C. data doesn’t show an increase in opioid-use disorder among that age group.

Henry called for a “centralized ability” to collect the data that is out there around children and youth, their mental health and substance use. She said she believes there needs to be opportunities for young people to make up “for what they’ve been through over the last few years, to give them economic opportunities, opportunities for connection with peers, for culturally safe connection with elders for indigenous youth.”

In her recommendations, Henry also called for a greater emphasis should be placed on monitoring the safer supply program for unintended consequences, including primary data collection with youth about their use of substances generally and their access to diverted medications.

Lauren Collins

About the Author: Lauren Collins

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media's national team, after my journalism career took me across B.C. since I was 19 years old.
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