Recovery for youth who use drugs looks different – here’s how one program in Victoria does it

In an unassuming house on a quiet street in the heart of James Bay, the Threshold Housing Society’s youth recovery program is doing wonders.

In this eight-bedroom home, 15- to 25-year-olds are working to become their best selves through therapy and education focused on harm reduction strategies and life skills, all designed to keep them alive, While preparing for their road to recovery.

That’s the goal, says Kacie Stirrett, Threshold’s Supportive Rehabilitation Program Manager – to keep young people alive as they learn how to navigate life and substance use in an increasingly dangerous environment.

“There’s a lot of focus on adult services, but not as much attention on youth as I think it needs to be,” Stirrett said. “There’s a perception that no one uses substances until they’re 19, but once they’re At 19, they need these services. I think the earlier someone is offered intervention or support services, the higher the chance of success.”

The Threshold Housing Society is a housing-first organization focused on housing homeless youth, but Stirrett said many of the young people who interact with the organization also face some kind of substance use problem.

The program also requires a range of approaches for children from different backgrounds, educational levels and economic status.

“We have young people who are going to university and we have young people who have no education or access to education, so one of the things that our program does really well is that we try to offer a number of different ways of learning, whether it’s oral or written , one-on-one, group, art therapy,” Stirrett said. “We’re just trying to find as many ways as possible to connect with these young people because we recognize they have different learning abilities.”

Adolescent drug use is treated differently from adult drug use for a number of reasons. On the one hand, stigma affects drug users of all ages, but Threshold’s director of housing and support services, Angela McNulty-Buell, said it had a significant impact on young people.

“Having a real conversation about how to support young people to use drugs safely is a real taboo,” McNulty-Buell said. on the page, but it’s not real.”

According to the BC Coroner’s Service, school surveys have found that 60 per cent of Canadians in grades 7 to 9 report drug use, and the number of deaths from poisonous drugs under the age of 19 will increase from five in 2012 to 34 in 2022.

Avoiding these conversations can have a silencing effect, Stirrett said, which can lead to shame, which can drive addicts to use drugs alone — increasing the likelihood of an overdose.

“We need to have conversations about drug use itself not being a bad thing, good people taking drugs, and those people needing love and care just like the rest of us,” Stirrett said. “The more we are willing to have these conversations, I think we’ll have a safer community.” .”

That’s why at Threshold everything is a conversation.

The first conversations they have with young people who enter the four-month program are about their recovery—whether it’s quitting alcohol, using cannabis as a harm reduction tool, or adopting safe-use practices to reduce use or more safely use.

Detoxing can be a significant hurdle for teens, so it’s not a requirement for the program. A stabilization period is preferred, but Stirrett says abstaining from all substances isn’t the only form of recovery.

“A lot of times, the young people who come to our program don’t have these coping skills. They don’t have a role model who can model emotion regulation and things like that,” Stirrett said. “A lot of times, we’ll support the use of cannabis or tobacco as a form of harm reduction, and we’ll use other strategies as well.”

Adolescents in the program may need to use the drug 30 times a day—each urge prompts a discussion about why these feelings are felt, how to deal with them, and whether they could have happened without drugs. Slowly, though, Stirrett said she saw that number increase by 10 a day, then three, then zero, as coping skills built up and the young people in the program became more resilient.

Encouraging youth who use drugs to be honest, open and vulnerable is one way Threshold has succeeded, but it has to work both ways.

“I think when we keep our space and our minds open, we create safety,” McNulty-Buell said. “So as a parent of teens and someone who’s been doing this for a long time, I find myself really talking less and listening more. , to examine one’s own judgment and preconceived notions about what young people in our community should do.”

Evidence of the program’s power is everywhere.

From the messages on the walls written by those who left, to the homemade art and poetry, it’s clear that the conversations happening at home are having a role. Walking through the house is like walking into a home, a little white dog in a tie-dye shirt runs to greet you, and there is a fairy garden in the yard.

“Young people really make it their own. They have their own private bedroom and bathroom, but we have a shared living room and kitchen, and we have 24/7 staff, so there is always someone on duty, who can pass what they do. everything to support young people,”

Many of the young people Stirrett sees through the program have gone on to finish school or find work while effectively balancing their triggers and protecting their health.

“The young people who are going through are really impressive kids,” she said. “They’re really achieving the goals they’ve set, whether it’s work, school, or relationships — they’re just doing really cool stuff.”

The care provided here is life-changing, and at the end of the program, many who transition to housing will support the services Threshold provides, only reinforcing the work done and supporting the work to come. This continuum of care is what sets Threshold’s program apart and contributes to the long-term success of reducing drug use for children enrolled in the program.

“If our young people don’t have a safe place to go after the program ends, I won’t send them back to homelessness,” Stirrett said. “If they’re still working on the program, they’re still doing the steps, then I hope they’re here. A lot of young people in our supportive rehabilitation program have been able to transition into our housing program which will support young people until they 25, basically until their 26th birthday. So we really put them on a trajectory that was really supported, into their early adult life.”

In the long run, Stirrett said, improving the addiction care system depends in part on resources like Threshold’s recovery program, which aims to detect and treat substance abuse early.

Waiting lists for detox beds in the adult sector are long, and ongoing treatment can be laborious and expensive, which is why McNulty-Buell said they need to work on preventing substance abuse, not ignoring it.

“These conversations around youth homelessness and youth drug addiction make us very uncomfortable — it’s shameful, so as a society and a community we don’t want to talk about it, but we need to,” she said. “If we don’t stop people from flooding the adult system, we’re doomed. We’re going to continue to be backlogged, overburdened, and we’re doomed.”

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