In 2017, a father in Victoria, British Columbia asked his 15-year-old daughter for rehabilitation because of an opioid addiction. He feared it would be too late when she realized she needed treatment – a reality for many parents with children battling addiction.
Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions among adolescents and adults in North America. In 2016, around 64,000 Americans died from this class of drugs, which includes illicit drugs like heroin and prescription drugs like fentanyl, which account for the majority of opioid-related deaths. In 2015, approximately 10% of teenagers aged 15 to 24 in Canada were using prescription opiates.
In Canada, health care is administered in the province. According to lawyer Lisa Feldstein, an expert on child mental health law, most Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, do not have a minimum age for medical consent. When an opioid-dependent child is judged to be mentally fit by a doctor, they can decide whether or not to receive treatment. Exceptions are only granted in medical emergencies. In this case, a doctor will decide on the most appropriate measure. In contrast, in most states, parents can make medical decisions on behalf of children under the age of 18. In some states, parents can even seek involuntary treatment for adult children.
Current Canadian laws are viewed as extremely problematic by parents of drug addicted children. They believe the laws interfere with their ability to protect their children from harm, and many feel hopeless and fearful. The Trauma and Mental Health Report (TMHR) surveyed numerous parents with drug addict children, and many believe that the nature of drug addiction affects a person’s ability to think rationally and to recognize that they have a serious problem that warrants immediate treatment. This concern was echoed by the father of the opioid dependent child from Victoria, British Columbia:
“She is a child. Her brain is not fully developed. She is already suffering from emotional problems and now the drugs speak for her. She does not think rationally.”
Parents’ concerns are supported in part by research. According to one study, the reason many people with opioid addiction fail to seek treatment may be due to disrupted neuro-circuitry, which results in an impaired ability to recognize their drug addiction.
If their child is believed to be mentally deficient, parents can obtain an official form, authorized by a doctor, that can be used to involuntarily admit their child for treatment. However, the length of time that treatment facilities can involuntarily lock up children is often short. For example, in British Columbia, Form 4 allows a person to be involuntarily admitted for 48 hours. To be held longer, a second form must be filled out within this 48-hour period, within which a person can be held for up to 30 days.
In an interview, Brenda Doherty, a parent of a 14 year old opioid addict child, expresses the frustration and heartache caused by the current mental health system. Doherty managed to get Form 4. However, her daughter was discharged from the hospital she was admitted to within an hour of her arrival:
“I didn’t even have time to get down there and they let her go … They let her go and she died a day and a half later.”
While the National Institute on Drug Abuse states that involuntary treatment can be effective, Micheal Vonn, policy director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, argues that involuntary treatment can put children at higher risk after they are discharged:
“The question then becomes whether they are actually more inclined or overdosed after they are discharged because they don’t have a structured program to help them recover?”
According to Families for Addiction Recovery, while voluntary treatment is always preferred, if consent is not possible, consideration must be given to the risks of untreated addiction, which can include homelessness, adolescent detention, and serious medical problems.
In an interview with the TMHR, Kaelan Lanie, a 20-year-old from Minnesota who battled opioid addiction during her teens, appreciates both sides of the debate:
“While in many cases I think that forced intervention is necessary, I believe that the addict needs the help in order for the treatment to actually work and, unfortunately, you can’t force someone to want to get better.”
When asked what was the main motivational factor that enabled Lanie to recover from the addiction, she said:
“I’ve had just enough. I got ready to do whatever I can to recover, and God put the right people in place to believe in me until I could believe in myself. “
Lanie advises parents of drug addicted children:
“I believe the best parents can do for their drug addict child is to seek help on their own. Talk about things – whether you join support groups or confide in friends and family. Addiction is a family disease and everyone needs to recover from it. “
The balance between respecting children’s autonomy and a parent’s duty to protect their child is complex. However, the case can be cited that allowing parents to consent to treatment on behalf of their child, while not being sufficient to resolve the current opioid crisis, may potentially save the lives of opioid dependent children. At the moment, parents can only support their child, as the 15-year-old father from British Columbia has confirmed:
“I tell her that I love her and that I have to be careful and watch out. And when I get an answer, all I know is that she’s alive. And that’s all I can ask right now. “
– Julia Martini, contributing writer
Feature: Rafabordes at Pixabay, Creative Commons
First: Ajay Suresh on Flickr, Creative Commons
Second: rawpixel.com at Pexels, Creative Commons