News / Vancouver

Teen's tragic overdose shows need for harm reduction in schools: doc

16-year-old girl’s fatal overdose from what she thought was MDMA offers tragic lessons in how to talk to youth about drugs, says medical health officer.

Power Alternate School, part of the New Westminster School District (No. 40)

Supplied/SD40

Power Alternate School, part of the New Westminster School District (No. 40)

A 16-year-old teenager’s overdose death in New Westminster — caused by a still “unknown” substance she thought was the party drug MDMA, police said — continues to inflict “significant impact” on students and faculty at her high school, Power Alternate Secondary School.

It’s a tight-knit school with just 66 students, and on Tuesday, School District No. 40’s critical incident counsellors and psychologists remained on-site to help cope with the “heartfelt sorrow” caused by the unnamed teen’s death, according to Supt. Pat Duncan.

“Right now we’re in the midst of supporting students with their grieving process,” Duncan said in a statement. “The students and staff are very close in the Power program, so this tragedy has significant impact.”

Another student who overdosed was released from hospital, whom police said bought a batch of drug from the same street-level dealer, as police continue to investigate.

But while much of the discussion around a deadly overdose crisis — one that’s claimed at least 488 lives between January and April, averaging more than four deaths a day — has centred on entrenched addiction and high-use neighbourhoods, recreational drug users remain hard hit too. Many of them are teenagers.

“Adolescence is a time for trying new things, and deciding whether to use alcohol and other drugs is a personal decision,” states the website Mindcheck.ca, created by B.C. Children's Hospital, Fraser Health and the province. “All substances have risks associated with them, and their use can negatively impact your current life and future dreams.

According to Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, messages like “Say no to drugs” are completely ineffective — and even worsen teen drug abuse.

“Say no to drugs doesn’t work,” he said in a phone interview, “because some kids are already using drugs. You have to give them real advice that can help.”

“Specifically when you make kids promise not to use drugs, you’ve made it so they can’t come to you for help or when they start getting into trouble.”

Families play a key role in fostering healthy conversations about drug use, and the current overdose crisis which has seen much of the recreational and party drug supply contaminated with fentanyl and opioids hundreds of times worse.

According to New Westminster Police, what killed the teen this week appears to be something new altogether.

“The current crisis is a great opportunity to talk to kids about drugs,” Lysyshyn said. “But it’s not a great opportunity to scare kids not to use drugs. It’s better to say, ‘It’s in the news, it’s happening right now, kids might have questions right now.”

Several schools in Vancouver, he said, are starting to carry naloxone overdose-reversal kits, an easily injectable and safe antidote to opioid overdose. But the problem is most youth are using drugs “off school grounds.”

Asked about the possibility of having drug-testing kits in some high-risk schools wouldn’t be feasible at this time, he cautioned — there is currently only one pilot testing program in Vancouver, but it’s offered at the Insite safe injection facility.

Leslie McBain has spoken in high schools about her family’s experience — her son Jordan died in 2014 from fentanyl. She’s since become a leading advocate but told Metro that approaches that create stigma against drug use or condemn users are wrong.

“I don't believe that harm reduction will get more drugs to kids,” she said in an earlier interview. “What is see in the harm reduction policies is that people at risk of addiction and death will have the support they need to stay alive.”

Resources aimed at youth on drugs, substance use and mental health are available at Mindcheck.ca.

Update (May 31): New opioid numbers released after time of publication added, raising the daily death toll this year from 3.8 to 4.1 on average since January.

More on Metronews.ca