Alberta’s child advocate wants the province to create a youth-specific response to the opioid crisis with a school curriculum that starts teaching students in elementary school about substance abuse.
Del Graff makes the recommendation in a report that outlines the deaths of a dozen teens from overdoses of drugs that include fentanyl and carfentanil.
“The deaths of these 12 young people puts the issue front and centre and as Albertans we must respond,” Graff said after his report was released Tuesday.
Last year, the province declared opioid-related deaths a public health crisis. The government has funded various projects to raise awareness and distribute life-saving kits containing the naloxone antidote.
Health Canada has also approved six supervised consumption sites in Alberta.
But Graff says young people need more help.
“They are developmentally unique from adults. Their brains are still developing, which influences decision-making behaviour and emotional regulation,” he said.
Fentanyl deaths in Alberta have increased sharply in recent years. There were six deaths in 2011. By 2016, that had risen to 358. There were 562 fatal overdoses – including 76 young people – last year.
“Youth between the ages of 15 and 24 have the fastest-growing rates of emergency department visits and hospitalization due to opioid use,” said Graff.
Education about opioids, as well as on healthy living, needs to start in elementary grades and continue through into high school, he said.
“We want it to be an incremental learning,” Graff said. “We know that investment for children with respect to health promotion will pay off down the road.”
Education Minister David Eggen said in a statement that access to information on substance abuse with be strengthened with a new curriculum already in the works. He did not mention if the program would specifically address opioids.
Students currently learn about substance abuse starting in Grade 5 and, under the new curriculum, will be introduced to the difference between prescription and non-prescription drugs as early as Grade 2.
“Our government takes this extremely seriously and we will continue taking action to protect children, youth and families from the opioid crisis,” Health Minister Sarah Hoffman said in a release.
She said she has met with Graff and her office is reviewing all of his recommendations, which also include that children’s services workers receive more substance abuse training and that youth addictions programs do more to involve families.
In addition, Graff said he wants the province to update its legislation that allows guardians to seek court orders to confine youth to protective safe houses for 10 days. Opioid withdrawal is different from that of other drugs, he said, with a higher risk for overdoses after a period of abstinence.