A Thunder Bay addiction treatment centre — the only one of its kind in Canada for First Nation men between 16 and 25 years old — wants to open another centre to treat those who suffer from solvent abuse.

It would help more people like a youth from Pikangikum First Nation who has been living at Ka-Na-Chi-Hih Specialized Solvent Abuse Treatment Centre as he recovers. He was just 11 when he started sniffing gasoline.

"I tried it out," the 18-year-old said.

Sniffing gas made him feel "high and dizzy and stuff," but he said it wasn’t long before he became angry and suicidal. Life looks better eight months into his stay at the centre, however.

"Everything is helping me out in here," he said.

For program co-ordinator Raija Vic, deciding who gets admitted to the centre next can be a matter of life or death.

"If we find that a youth is in real danger of a possible suicide or death from a solvent, we really have to look at that and take that into consideration," she said.

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Treatment program co-ordinator Raija Vic says deciding who gets admitted to the centre can be a matter of life and death. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Potentially deadly addiction

Vic said there are many deaths from "sudden sniffing death syndrome," as well as suicides, because people get very depressed after sniffing. She added solvent abuse can cause medical problems, including loss of muscle tone, so the program also ensures youth get physical activity every day.

Vic said Ka-Na-Chi-Hih plans to apply for government funding to open a group home — a place where clients would transfer after a few months of treatment to continue longer-term healing. The move would free up beds for people in crisis just beginning that journey.    

"Once they've done the basic steps of treatment — say the first four months — they can go into a supported living environment," Vic said. "That way we'd be able to bring in the emergency cases and give them those tools ... to start their healing."

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Ka-Na-Chi-Hih executive director Vincent Simon says there are a lot of misconceptions in the public about solvent abuse. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

Long-term program

Ka-Na-Chi-Hih executive director Vincent Simon said treating solvent addiction takes a long time. Clients may stay at the centre from four months to two years.

"Solvent abuse is different from other substances," Simon said.

"If you're a chronic solvent abuser, it can take up to two months to fully detoxify ... the solvents from your body.  So it has to be a long-term program."

Simon noted there are a lot of misconceptions in the public about solvent abuse. People need to understand that "It's an addiction ... it's an illness.  It's a mental health problem."

Many of the centre’s clients have already tried other programs that haven't worked for them, Vic said, and speculated that could be likely because other programs are too short. She also said some alcohol and drug addiction treatment programs won't accept people addicted to solvents.

Program includes First Nations traditions

That’s why there’s a dire need for more programs like this one, Vic said.

The centre held its 14th annual solvent abuse awareness walk on Thursday. The walk was followed by a feast. All the clients at the centre participated, as well as representatives from other agencies.

The event was an opportunity to raise awareness about the treatment centre’s 12-bed inpatient program which treats a potentially deadly addiction.

"I don't know why there isn't any more (programs in Canada)," Vic said. "Maybe the awareness and education of people knowing the need for it isn't coming across to ... the funders."

Vic said the program is geared to this age group by providing education but also showing them healthy ways to have fun. Every day clients go out and do something fun, "so that they know that there's other ways [not involving getting high]

to enjoy and have a good time with your friends," she said. 

Clients get out in the community, volunteer and go to school. Vic added clients do a lot of self-esteem work. The treatment is based on a medicine wheel looking at emotional, mental, physical and spiritual well-being and includes traditional activities like sweat lodges.