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A healthcare worker wearing a protective face mask walks past a large photograph outside a drug store in Vancouver, on April 5, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The B.C. government has proposed changes to its Mental Health Act that would allow people who are under 19 to be hospitalized without their consent for up to seven days following an overdose.

The changes, which passed a first reading in the legislature Tuesday, are designed to help young people who are in crisis and provide enough time for them to be stabilized and discharged with a plan to voluntarily connect with health services and support, said Judy Darcy, B.C.‘s Minister for Mental Health and Addictions.

“They would not have forced treatment. There would be voluntary treatment and, very importantly, medical staff would work with youth to develop a care plan upon discharge from the hospital,” Ms. Darcy said.

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The proposed legislative changes were supposed to be introduced earlier this year, but were delayed because of COVID-19.

The proposals, which follow pleas from parents who have said the existing system doesn’t provide enough help for young people and their families, resulted in some critics saying the changes didn’t go far enough; the provincial coroner raised concerns that the changes could undermine ministry efforts to reduce the fear and stigma associated with substance use.

Under the proposed legislation, youth admitted to the hospital after an overdose could be admitted for stabilization care for up to 48 hours or until their decision-making capacity is restored, for a maximum of seven days, the province said.

The changes follow extensive discussion with experts and are designed to target a very specific group: young people who have overdosed and need help, Ms. Darcy said.

The opposition critic and the provincial coroner both raised concerns about the proposed amendments.

The changes target only those young people who are admitted to hospital after an overdose, said Jane Thornthwaite, Liberal critic for mental health and addictions.

“So chronically addicted youth who are using at home and overdose, and are revived with naloxone … all of those youth would not meed the criteria,” she said. “It’s better than nothing, but it doesn’t go far enough.”

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Ms. Thornthwaite has previously proposed legislation that would allow for some youth to receive involuntary treatment.

In a statement on Tuesday, B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe questioned the wisdom of making such legislative changes without ensuring adequate treatment is available.

“Without an established, evidence-based, accessible system of substance-use treatment services, I am concerned there is the potential for serious unintended consequences as a result of these legislative amendments, including the potential for an increase in fatalities,” Ms. Lapointe said.

Several reports, including a 2016 report by then-children’s advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, have documented a dire shortage of specialized treatment for B.C. youth dealing with drug and alcohol addiction.

The proposed changes don’t address the lack of residential treatment beds for young people in parts of the province, says Rachel Staples, whose son Elliott Eurchuk died of an overdose in the family’s Victoria home on April 20, 2018, when he was 16.

“It is a step in the right direction, but I think it is a little short-sighted, because there are still no treatment beds, particularly on Vancouver Island,” Ms. Staples said Tuesday in an interview.

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“So even if a child decided of their own volition that they wanted to go into treatment, the [treatment] beds are still siloed, meaning that they’re regional, and the wait lists are three to four months, if not longer,” she added.

Ms. Darcy said the government has taken steps to improve access to treatment, including building a new treatment centre set to open soon in Chilliwack and investing in Foundry centres throughout the province.

There are currently nine Foundry centres – which provide health and substance-use services to youth aged 12 to 24 – in B.C., with the province this month announcing plans for eight more.

Ms. Darcy disagreed with calls for legislation that would allow for involuntary treatment.

“Every specialist we spoke to and all the evidence says that long-term involuntary detention can be more harmful than beneficial,” she said, adding that forced treatment can result in people losing trust in the medical system and professionals.

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