B.C. pauses youth mental health bill after report from children’s watchdog

B.C. pauses youth mental health bill after report from children's watchdog
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B.C. has paused a bill that would have allowed youth to be detained for up to a week following an overdose, after a new report from the children's watchdog found an alarming increase in youth hospitalized against their will.

The B.C. government has hit pause on a bill that would have allowed health officials to detain youth for up to a week to administer involuntary health care after an overdose.

This comes after child and youth watchdog Jennifer Charlesworth slammed the government in a report this Wednesday for the rising number of youth hospitalized against their will in the province.

Charlesworth found the number of involuntary admissions of youth under the age of 19 rose 162 per cent since 2008 to as many as 2,545 kids in 2017 to 2018. The rate of increase for adult involuntary admissions was less than a third of that for youth during the same time.

In her report, Charlesworth called the increase alarming and urged government to modernize the Mental Health Act, which was written in 1964.

Mental Health Minister Sheila Malcolmson’s ministry confirmed it has halted plans to reintroduce Bill 22 on youth overdoses.

“We won’t be reintroducing a bill until we have taken the time to listen to people about these complex issues,” the ministry said in a statement. “The bill won’t be coming forward in this spring session.”

The ministry said its decision “was made prior to this report” and dates back to July when the government first introduced Bill 22 and then was forced to back off after the Coroners Service, Children’s Representative, First Nations leaders, the Ombudsperson, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the B.C. Greens warned the changes were ill-considered and might actually cause more harm than help for youth.

However, Premier John Horgan said during the October election that he would resurrect the bill and ensure its passage through the legislature if he won a majority government. He pointed the finger at the B.C. Greens for refusing to support the bill, not commenting on the other groups who opposed the bill, and cited the lack of “stability” to pass that legislation as a key factor in calling an early election.

“I was not prepared to accept that,” Horgan said when announcing the election. “That was really the deciding issue for me.”

Horgan has cited private conversations with families as fuelling his push for change, saying that youth, especially during the overdose crisis, need more help from the health care system during a mental health emergency.

Some clinicians have backed his call, saying a week of involuntary stay in a hospital after an overdose could help stabilize a child and reconnect them with health care professionals.

Others have warned the risk of being detained in hospital could deter youth from seeking help, erode trust in First Nations communities and potentially increase the risk the youth would commit harm against themselves once released from detention.

It’s unclear if the government is simply pausing the bill, or abandoning it altogether. The Mental Health Ministry said it will refocus efforts in the meantime on youth care beds.

“Our main focus continues to be on expanding services and building a system of substance use care that meets the needs of youth – working with experts, youth, families and Indigenous peoples and organizations,” read the statement.

“In the meantime, we are working to double youth treatment beds and opening more Foundry centres in more communities.”

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Rob ShawRob Shaw

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