British Columbia

Province hits pause on controversial bill that would allow involuntary hospitalization of youth who overdose

British Columbia's Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions says it's seeking further consultation on a controversial bill that would amend the Mental Health Act to allow youth to be detained for up to a week when they overdose, as critics call for the bill to be scrapped altogether.

Critics condemn Bill 22's 'coercive health care' as ministry seeks more consultation over summer break

Youth advocates say more harm reduction tactics like safe consumption sites are needed to help young people with addiction, not involuntary detention. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

The B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions says it's seeking further consultation on a controversial bill that would allow youth to be involuntarily hospitalized for up to a week after they overdose, as critics call for it to be scrapped altogether.

Minister Judy Darcy said the ministry wasn't able to get through Bill 22, which proposes amendments to the B.C. Mental Health Act, before the end of the legislative session, and will use the summer break to consult with more groups regarding safeguards to protect young people's rights. 

"These have been challenging discussions, but we all have the same goal of protecting young people and ensuring they get trauma-informed, culturally safe care," Darcy said in a written statement. 

But Jennifer Charlesworth, the province's representative for children and youth, says the bill should be withdrawn because it will deter youth from asking for help over fears they'd be forced into treatment, and  because it disproportionately impacts Indigenous youth who have been removed from their families and use drugs to cope with that trauma.

She says the current toxic drug supply, which has led to a record number of overdoses, requires the government to focus instead on early intervention and residential treatment.

The bill has received mixed reaction from groups that say they want to protect youth who are battling addiction — and reaction to the bill being put on hold has been similarly varied. 

Parents say they want the government to do more to compel young people to seek treatment when their ability to reason may be hampered by addiction. But legal and youth advocates say forcing people into treatment doesn't work and the threat of being detained for up to a week is more likely to cause further harm. 

'I was hopeful'

Shirley Chan, vice-president of the board of directors for Pathways Serious Mental Illness Society, says she was disappointed to hear the bill wasn't able to pass this session and may be open to more consultation.

"I was hopeful. And I'm just sorry to see that there will be more teenagers dying on our streets," said Chan, whose daughter suffers from mental health issues and addiction. 

"You can't make a rational choice when you're either delusional or suffering from an addiction."

Dr. Jana Davidson, B.C. Children's Hospital's chief medical officer, consulted with the province on the bill and supports it.

She says youth in hospital care for a week can build relationships with health practitioners and community service providers who can help them transition back into the community.

"It allows the opportunity for the youth to look at the state of affairs in their life," she said.

Detaining youth in hospital is just one small piece of the puzzle in treating addiction, Davidson says, and the province still needs more resources for long-term treatment options. 

'Nobody likes to be forced to do things'

But civil liberties and youth advocates say the bill is problematic. 

Kali Sedgemore, a youth outreach worker and advocate for harm reduction, says forcing people into treatment before they're ready just leads to more shame and hiding drug use, which can lead to more overdoses. 

"You should be able to do [treatment] on your own free will and when you're ready, not when someone makes you ready," Sedgemore said. 

"Nobody likes to be forced to do things." 

Sedgemore and other advocates say youth use drugs for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes drug use is the only thing keeping them alive. 

What's needed, Sedgemore says, is for the government to consult with fewer doctors and more youth with lived experience and for more harm reduction techniques, like safe consumption sites, to be geared specifically for young people so they can stay safe until they are ready to pursue treatment,

Open letter to ministries

In an open letter to Darcy and Health Minister Adrian Dix, the Pivot Legal Society said there is no evidence to support involuntary detention. 

The organization also says the bill could do more harm by making youth afraid to call 911, lest they be detained for a week. It could also make them more prone to fatal overdoses after they're detained because their drug tolerance would be lower, it said. 

Darcy says the proposed changes are based on a successful pilot project at BC Children's Hospital and that her ministry worked with First Nations groups to develop them.

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

With files from Lauren Donnelly, Bridgette Watson and The Canadian Press

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