Indigenous youth have ‘nowhere to go’ if VCH treatment centre closes

Indigenous youth have ‘nowhere to go’ if VCH treatment centre closes

Four Indigenous communities relied on Carlile to help youth with addictions, mental illness. And NDP MLA Bowinn Ma says she is ‘alarmed’ by closure of centre

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An adolescent treatment centre in North Vancouver has saved the lives of Indigenous youth from four Central Coast communities, and its closing will leave teenagers in the remote communities with “nowhere to go,” a First Nations leader says.

“This is devastating news. You can’t place a value on the quality of care and services for our youth that have come through the Carlile centre,” said Maria Martin, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation in Bella Bella.

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“It just places us further in an inequitable, care-access system, which is compounded by other poor health service needs and outcomes for our people. Youth are our priorities and this closure is an inequity.”

Postmedia reported on Thursday that the 10-bed Carlile Youth Concurrent Disorders Centre, on the grounds of Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver, is scheduled to close in March, despite being the only facility of its kind in Western Canada.

The centre has the only in-patient psychiatric beds for youth aged 13 to 18 within Vancouver Coastal Health, which serves a large region that includes Bella Bella and Bella Coola, Pemberton to Squamish, and the North Shore to Richmond.

It was routinely used by Indigenous youth with mental health and addictions, and its sudden closing further marginalizes young people from remote areas, Martin said.

“Closing the doors without notice to anyone puts us in a position of having nowhere for them to go. It continues to widen the gap. The need is high,” said Martin, who represents the Central Coast communities of Kitasoo, Oweekeno, Nuxalk and Heiltsuk on the First Nations Health Council.

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“It’s necessary to keep the doors of the Carlile centre open.”

The centre, which opened in 2017, was renowned for providing youth struggling with both substance use and mental illness with access to schooling, cultural services, and life skills during their voluntary stays, which typically last several weeks.

Several parents of children helped by Carlile have contacted Postmedia to express their concern about the impending closure. One mother said the centre saved her 16-year-old son, and she is “terrified” that it won’t be there to assist again if he relapses.

“I was devastated and simultaneously outraged to read about the closure of Carlile,” wrote the mother, whose name won’t be published to protect the identity of her son. “Carlile was there for us and provided life-saving care.”

The centre sits in the North Vancouver-Lonsdale riding of MLA Bowinn Ma, a cabinet minister in the NDP government, who said she reached out to her colleague, Jennifer Whiteside, the minister of mental health and addictions, after reading about the Carlile’s closing in the newspaper.

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“It has certainly alarmed me. I have since connected with community members who know more about what is happening with the program and have discussed their concerns with minister Whiteside,” she said.

Whiteside’s office said she will speak with Postmedia on Tuesday, after gathering more information.

Last week, the Health Ministry referred all questions to Vancouver Coastal Health. The health authority said it was no longer accepting referrals to Carlile and planned to change the centre’s focus to address the “growing need” for more acute, or short-term, services for young adults aged 18 to 25.

It also said the beds at Carlile were often not full because it relied on admissions from community partners, such as schools or service agencies, and it required youth to voluntarily consent to a long admission.

However, experts who spoke with Postmedia for this story, but couldn’t be identified because it could compromise their employment, said the Carlile was often not full due to a shortage of staff and alleged the health authority delayed for months trying to fill child psychiatrist openings at the centre. The experts also alleged there would have been more patients if the health authority was not resistant to suggestions that the centre’s narrow mandate, to treat only children with both an addiction and a mental illness, be expanded.

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Carlile’s in-patient beds, experts say, were crucial to treat the small number of at-risk youth who are unable to get help from community resources.

The provincial government first announced the creation of the centre in 2016, two weeks before B.C. declared a public health emergency due to the poisoned drug supply. Since then, nearly 14,000 people have fatally overdosed, including more than 180 youth under age 18, and there has been a surge in mental-health challenges, largely as a result of COVID-19.

There are in-patient adolescent psych beds in some other health authorities. And B.C. Children’s Hospital, a provincial centre, has 26 in-patient beds that can be used for children with addictions and mental illness, a spokesperson said.

Martin, though, said the Carlile was special for taking the time to treat the underlying causes of the teens’ struggles, and that many youth returned to the Central Coast with “positive outcomes.”

“With the gaps in mental health and addictions, especially for youth, the Carlisle has been a way to support and address root problems. … Being a part of the program has
allowed the youth to come out grounded and looking to continue supports,” she said.

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“This closure, it’ll do more harm in the long term, especially with the fact that we’re now left with nowhere to go.”

The move is contrary to the promises made under the United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Martin added.

“The UN declaration was that health care be prioritized. This is going backwards,” she said.

“This is not looking to the future in ways that affirm that our mental health and wellness is a priority. It’s quite the opposite.

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