A small Island, with a big problem

By Dylan DesRoche

Jan. 23, 2015

P.E.I. is small but it has some big problems and youth addiction is one of them, something Spencer Mckenna knows all too well.

It started out innocently, often spending time drinking with friends, he said. But it soon became nefarious. Mckenna’s drinking increased and soon he was experimenting with speed, cocaine and psychedelics.

One day a concerned friend told him about the strength program.

It offers a range of supports for youth struggling with addictions and their families. Individuals in the program stay there during the week to work on themselves through counsellors and group therapy. On the weekends they are sent home to their families to practice the coping techniques.

Mckenna decided then. He had to deal with his addiction.

“That same day I talked to the counsellors at school and confessed to them about my addiction and that I needed help.”

Mckenna talked to an addictions counsellor who routinely visits the school.

“She got me to go to a few other meetings in Summerside to prove I wanted change. Once I showed her I wanted to be better she referred me to the program and I was accepted the next week.”

Mckenna instantly noticed changes in how he felt about himself and his addiction.

“My time at the strength program was probably the best thing that has happened in my life so far.”

The program isn’t just about addiction. The goal of the program is to teach not only coping mechanisms but also about yourself and the underlying causes of addiction, said Mckenna

“I learned a lot about myself while there and a lot about others too. I learned all kinds of coping methods and was taught the actual science behind my addiction.”

When Mckenna looks back on his life he says he is lucky that nothing bad happened while he was waiting for entrance into the program.

“When I look back at it, I got in a lot of trouble knowing I was going to be leaving soon.”

Although the program was helpful, Mckenna said the process was difficult and changes needed to be made.

“I believe we should have more readily available options to help youth when they need the help, which is now.”

Mckenna’s story is becoming too common on P.E.I.

Statistics from 2013 show that P.E.I. has one of the highest rates of youth binge drinking at 31 per cent, compared to British Columbia and Ontario’s 21 per cent and 27 per cent respectively.

P.E.I. also has one of the highest rates of youth abusing pharmaceuticals at nearly six per cent. Although the numbers seem small, they reflect an issue that Nicole Haire, principal of Three Oaks senior high, in Summerside, said that actually be much bigger.

Haire sees students of all walks of life and though some students reach out for help, others hide their problems or believe that they are in control of their use. The high school is trying to combat this issue by providing options for students who want to help themselves and for those who don`t.

“The challenge is getting students to admit they have a problem,” said Haire.

Students who don’t seek out help but get caught with drugs or being under the influence of drugs at school receive mandatory counselling, Haire said.

“Addictions are a strong force and it takes a strong force to address that.”

The school also has a yearly seminar of addiction experts speaking to the students, including ER doctors, recovering addicts and their parents to show the true cost of drug use, says Haire.

Haire believes the current programs for students suffering from addictions are helpful but more needs to be done.

“Any sort of program is positive because this problem isn’t going away by itself.”

Though the in-school support programs make a difference, she thinks in more severe cases in-patient treatment programs such as Portage Atlantic Rehab Centre, in Sussex N.b. are necessary.

“I just feel that if the addiction is severe it is not a quick fix.” said Haire

Unfortunately, P.E.I youth with severe addictions must travel to Portage to receive long term in-patient care as P.E.I. does not have a 24/7, long term rehab facility for youth. Health Minister, Doug Currie said that is changing.

“We are moving the strength program to Summerside and creating our own 24/7, residential, youth addiction treatment facility.”

In 2011 Currie decided the province needed to take a deeper look at youth addiction and mental health with the goal to improve both access and capacity at these services.

There is no doubt in the success of the strength program, but the face of addiction is changing, said Currie.

“Addressing the changing face of addiction has been one of my top priorities.”

The health minister recognized that relapse is a huge part of the problem and that was one of the key factors in building this new facility. P.E.I. is also taking unprecedented steps in mental health by being the second province to hire a chief mental health officer. That officer’s mandate is to improve access to support and increase cooperation between government agencies.

The province has also made changes in legislation regarding the top five opioid painkillers and how and when they can be prescribed. The changes come after a 17 per cent increase in the amount of pills being prescribed in P.E.I. and a 203 per cent increase nationwide.

Though the government has made several helpful and called for changes to youth mental health and addiction services, Currie said there is more to be done.

“We have made unprecedented investments in mental health and addictions as a government, I am certainly proud of the work. Is there more to be done? Yes, because this is a very complex and challenging file, because every individual is so unique and different.”

Going forward, the minister hopes his government will be re-elected so he can continue to focus on mental health and addictions.

For Mckenna, life after the program is wonderful. After successfully graduating high school, Mckenna moved to Edmonton, Alta. He is now working in demolition. Mckenna knows he will always have to battle his addictions but because of the strength program, he knows he can do it.

“I think if I never made it to the program when I did I would have continued on a downhill slope and without any of my knowledge I have now, I wouldn’t be even close to the person I am today.”

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