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Child advocate warns of record number of youth opioid deaths this year

·2 min read
Del Graff is Alberta's child and youth advocate. (Submitted by Del Graff - image credit)
Del Graff is Alberta's child and youth advocate. (Submitted by Del Graff - image credit)

Alberta's child and youth advocate is warning that 2021 is shaping up to be the worst on record for deaths of young people from opioid overdoses.

Last year, 95 Albertans under the age of 25 died due to opioid poisoning. Alberta recorded 29 deaths in the first three months of 2021.

In a new report released Wednesday, Del Graff followed up on his 2018 report about youth and opioid use. Although some progress has been made on five recommendations, Graff found the situation has become much worse.

"An increasingly toxic and unregulated drug supply, combined with persistent gaps in prevention, intervention, and recovery supports, is endangering Alberta's young people," the report states.

"The grim reality is that our young people are dying in even greater numbers today than when we brought this issue into focus nearly three years ago."

New recommendation

The report contains a new recommendation urging the government to set up a panel, committee or commission to set up a youth opioid and substance use strategy.

Jason Luan, the associate minister of mental health and addictions, said his department is working on an overall provincial strategy with youth issues as one of the priorities.

He says the government may create a steering group to oversee different aspects of the plan.

"I see that as very similar to what this report is talking about," Luan said. "I don't want to prejudge our sector stakeholders' work, but I see that the intention is pretty much similar."

Edmonton-Riverview MLA Lori Sigurdson, the NDP critic for mental health and addictions, says the number of fatal opioid poisonings is a public health emergency so creating a plan focused on the specific needs of youth is required.

"They're so vulnerable, youth today, because of the toxic drug supply," she said.

"One dose can kill. And so we really need to have those safe places for them to have supervised consumption, perhaps distinct from a regular site, so yes, I think it needs to be geared very much to the youth."

The advocate's report reviewed progress on five recommendations from the 2018 report.

They include increasing substance abuse education in schools, and reviewing the Protection of Children Abusing Drugs Act to ensure it better helps youth and families.

The advocate said there has been significant progress on each of the 2018 recommendations.