Indigenous youth who use drugs in B.C. dying at an alarming rate, study finds

Indigenous youth who use drugs in B.C. are 13 times more likely to die than all other youth in the same age group across the country. Study singled out young women and those involved with injection drug use to be at the highest risk.

‘It’s absolutely heartbreaking,’ says Mary Teegee, Chair of the Cedar Project Partnership

Women write messages on a banner during a memorial service to remember those who have died in the province as a result of the drug overdose crisis, on International Overdose Awareness Day Aug. 31, 2017 in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

Indigenous youth who use drugs in B.C. are 13 times more likely to die than all other youth in the same age group across the country. That's according to a new study, which singled out young women and those involved with injection drug use to be at the highest risk.

"It's a lot higher than I ever imagined," said Mary Teegee, who is on the steering committee for the research group with Carrier Sekani Family Services. "It's absolutely heartbreaking."

The study, published on Monday, comes out of the Cedar Project Partnership — a collaborative research group that follows self-identified Indigenous youth, between 14 and 30 years old, who use illicit drugs in Vancouver and Prince George, B.C.

While the project is ongoing, the report is an analysis of data collected between 2003 and 2014. Of the 610 young people followed during that time, 40 of them died.

Most died from an overdose. Illness and suicide were the next most common causes of death.

The findings are "off the charts" according to epidemiologist Martin Schechter, co-principal investigator on the study.

"Both males and females are at exceptionally high risk of death compared to non-Aboriginal people," he said.

In looking at why this is happening, researchers wrote that "elevated mortality among Indigenous people in Canada has historical roots in colonial policy."

Part of the information collected from the youth allowed them to look at the links between history and current lived experiences. Of the participants, nearly half said at least one of their parents attended residential school and more than 60 per cent said they'd been removed from their biological parents at some point in their life.
Two people hold hands as people form a circle during a memorial service to remember those who have died in B.C. as a result of the drug overdose crisis. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"The research is so important to show the detrimental effects, quantifiably and quantitatively, from colonization and impacts of residential school," said Teegee.

Nearly twice as many women died during study

Researchers couldn't find a clear explanation as to why so many young Indigenous men are dying. But when it comes to the discrepancy between men and women, Schechter said they believe childhood sexual abuse is likely the reason.

During the study period, nearly twice as many women died than men.

"The women were more likely to be injecting drugs and using opioids like heroin and I think that is probably causally related to the increased historical trauma, particularly childhood sexual abuse," he said.

Of the study participants, 63 per cent of women disclosed being sexually abused as a child, compared to 27 per cent of men.

"We've shown in previous research that histories of childhood sexual abuse — the trauma — does lead, we think, to self-medication as a way of dealing with the trauma. And one route is through opiates," he said.

'I'm surprised I'm still here'

One young Métis woman, a participant in the Cedar Project, said it was emotional for her to learn about the study results.

"I was just, trying not to tear up because I've been there, and I'm grateful that I'm not one of them," said Katt, whose last name CBC agreed not to publish.

"I'm surprised I was not one of the girls that — I'm surprised I'm still here, basically."

I'm trying to break that cycle for my kids.- Katt, Cedar Project participant

Katt said she spent 19 years in addiction. Her drug use started in Prince George, where she was raised primarily by her grandparents who were residential school survivors. She said her mom was unable to take care of her because of her own addiction.

"So they were — they didn't quite bring my mom up right because they didn't known any different. So they were trying to basically make things different with me, but it seems to just follow that path."

Katt said she started running away from home at a young age to get away from her family. And when she was 15 she headed south for Vancouver.

Three years clean and now in her 30s, Katt says it's the memories of pain, loneliness and suffering that keep her going in her sobriety.

And her two young children, who motivated her to get clean.

"I was going to die. If I didn't, I was going to die. And I knew this and I needed to be here for my kids," she said. "I'm trying to break that cycle for my kids."

Calls for more services and supports

Support is a key part of breaking those cycles, said Katt. Support for intergenerational survivors trying to do things differently for their kids. Support for those who are struggling in addiction through harm reduction services. Support for people to get clean, when they're ready.

And culturally relevant support to heal the pain behind the drug use.

"That's why they're using, because there's so much trauma and abuse that they numb that pain. That's why I can't stress enough there needs to be healing — spiritual healing, mental, emotional and a big support around them," she said.

The study concurs, adding that young Indigenous women who use drugs should play a meaningful role in developing more programs that would support them in their health and healing.

When asked what she'd say to those who are still struggling in active addiction, Katt said she'd want them to know they're not alone.

"I know it's hard, it's painful and it's lonely. But they need to know they're not alone and they can do it."