Building relationships best way to help addicted youth, advocates say

A harm reduction approach that focuses on building relationships with at risk youth is an effective way of helping them cope with addictions, said youth workers from Edmonton’s Boyle Street Community Services.

Youth workers at drug policy conference say harm reduction strategy leads to positive results

Boyle Street Community Services was the first of four safe injection sites opening in Edmonton. (CBC)

A harm reduction approach that focuses on building relationships with at-risk youth is an effective way of helping them cope with addictions and mental health issues, youth workers from Edmonton's Boyle Street Community Services say. 

Chris Beausoleil and Brenda Ohman shared their experience on Friday during the Stimulus conference, which looks at policies and practices related to drug use in Canada. 

Using a harm reduction strategy means accepting that a person may not be ready to stop using drugs and alcohol, or engaging in risky behaviour.

Instead, workers try to keep the youth safe and offer support until they are ready to change their lifestyle. 

"They're scared of letting people in because they've been let down so many times," Ohman said. "We don't give up, we stay at their pace."

Ohman tries to focus on the young person's strengths, so they can see themselves as survivors. 

"It's about building them up so that they feel confident about themselves, so they don't see themselves as a broken, damaged young person."

When the youth are ready, the workers help them connect to services such as housing and treatment options.

Helping at-risk Indigenous youths overcome addictions

5 years ago
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Boyle Street Community Services youth workers say that culture is key in supporting at-risk youths.

For the last three years, Ohman has worked with a group of 70 youth between the ages of 13 and 24. Only one youth has died of a drug overdose during that time.

"We've been fortunate, and unfortunate, that we've lost one youth, but one out of 70 is not bad odds," Ohman said. 

About four out of five youth that come to Boyle Street are Indigenous, and three-quarters of them have had contact with Children's Services. 

Many of them have no ties to their birth parents or communities, said Beausoleil.

"They've been taught that they won't amount to much, that their culture is no good," he said. 

Beausoleil helps them connect with their Indigenous background, and shed the negative stereotypes they've heard throughout their lives.

"It's an opportunity for them to feel confident about who they are and where they come from, and begin to let go of some of that trauma they've been dealing with their whole lives."

Some young people have even met family members by participating in traditional ceremonies, Beausoleil said. 

"They feel welcome," he said. "They get that family feeling outside of their downtown, inner city family."

Children's Services also uses a harm reduction approach in its work with high risk youth. This includes distributing up to 100,000 naloxone kits, which are used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. 

"These practices foster better outcomes by reducing the risk of self-harm or harm to the community, while ensuring individuals have access to continuous, wrap-around services," wrote spokesperson Karin Campbell, in an emailed statement.