Limited treatment options discourage addicts

More than 30 years ago, John Edzerza hit rock bottom. The New Democrat MLA was an alcoholic. “It felt like I was ready to die,” he said…

More than 30 years ago, John Edzerza hit rock bottom.

The New Democrat MLA was an alcoholic.

“It felt like I was ready to die,” he said Monday, sitting in his office.

“You’re still alive, but every emotion, everything in you has no life in it.”

As a last resort, Edzerza went to the territory’s only treatment centre, then called Crossroads.

He was turned away.

“They said there might be an opening in 30 days,” he said.

“I just walked away and never did go back.”

The territory still lacks treatment options, said Edzerza.

“The 28-day programs they have at Sarah Steele (building) are inadequate.”

It’s all the territory offers.

Alcohol and Drug Services runs nine 28-day treatment programs a year at Sarah Steele.

Each program can accommodate 12 clients. Women and men’s programs run alternately, with a two-week break between programs.

So, if a woman needs to come in for treatment, and the woman’s program already started, she will have to wait the duration of that program and the duration of the following men’s program before starting treatment.

“The most vulnerable time for a person with an alcohol or drug addiction is when they are at that moment when they really want help,” said Edzerza.

“And if you’re told to come back in 30 days or more, you’ve just shot all hope for them to address this issue.”

Alcohol and Drug Services supervisor Dale Gordon disagrees.

The 28-day treatment programs are no more effective than other treatment options offered at Sarah Steele, he said.

“There’s a common misconception that if you’re not an in-patient you’re not getting treatment,” said Gordon.

“But statistics show out-patient treatment is just as effective.”

If a treatment program isn’t available when a client needs it, they can become “out-patients.”

These patients are set up with a counsellor and attend group sessions once a week until a program becomes available.

Not good enough, said Edzerza.

“If I’m a chronic alcoholic and I’m coming to see you and I’m sober for this one little picture window period of time — maybe I’ve only been sober six hours, or a day — and you tell me, ‘We’ll send a counsellor to your house twice a week,’ well, sometimes, you need to be able to get away from that environment,” he said.

“And if you can’t, I think it adds to the person’s reluctance to even deal with this issue.”

There is a lack of comprehensive treatment options in the territory, said Blood Ties Four Directions executive director Patricia Bacon.

“That’s the feedback we get from our clients.

“We need programs you can access right away — without waiting lists.”

And there’s frustration about what’s not available, she added.

Ready to try giving up alcohol or drugs, many of Bacon’s clients claim there aren’t enough treatment options that fit.

“You can’t just have one program and hope that’s going to work for every person who’s using drugs or alcohol and wants to move away from that,” said Bacon.

“We need more.”

There are no programs for young people, she added.

And there are no programs modified to meet the needs of people with FASD, said Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society executive director Judy Pakozdy.

“(Alcohol and Drug Services) are mandated to do certain treatment, and it works for certain people,” she said.

“But there’s a high demand for more variety.”

Addicts with FASD are totally different clientele, said Gordon, who does see some clients with mild FASD come through Sarah Steele’s programs.

To run programs for these clients, counsellors would have to be trained differently, he said.

“And I have no idea how to meet this need.

“We’d need more staff and a bigger building.”

Right now, Gordon is short-staffed.

Three treatment counsellors are doing the work of four. And it’s taxing.

Gordon is also short an outpatient counsellor, with only four doing the work of five.

“This past winter we only had two,” he said.

The shortage resulted in longer wait times for clients in need.

“Sometimes they’d have to wait one or two weeks to see a counsellors,” he said.

That’s an eternity when someone needs help, said Edzerza.

Court-ordered to return to treatment seven years after he was turned away from Crossroads, Edzerza went back.

“I didn’t have a choice,” he said.

For the first couple weeks, nothing changed.

Then, Edzerza was introduced to the medicine wheel.

“They were using it as a counselling tool,” he said.

Edzerza hasn’t touched alcohol in more than 15 years, and he attributes it to the First Nations’ treatment component.

“That traditional section planted a seed for me,” he said.

“The majority of the clientele that needs help right now are First Nations people.

 “And there’s a real cultural clash here.”

If treatment programs are devoid of First Nations culture, many First Nations people feel excluded, said Edzerza.

“If there’s nothing First Nations there, our people just avoid it — they feel they have no belonging in that program and they won’t use it.”

There is no longer a First Nations treatment component at Sarah Steele, said Gordon.

The program used to serve mostly First Nations clients, he said.

“But now people are beginning to understand it’s not just a First Nations problem — it’s about 50/50.

“So our treatment is not specific, it’s open to all Yukoners.”

In the last few years, Gordon has seen a change in more than just clientele.

Crack and cocaine use is on the rise, he said.

“Five years ago I was seeing mostly alcohol addiction.”

“Now, crack and cocaine have caught up.”

Gordon is seeing as many people in treatment for cocaine as he is for alcohol.

“And it’s moving up in the age bracket,” he said.

“It used to be thought of as a yuppie 21-year-old drug.

“But now you are seeing people 50 and 60 who are addicted.”

The standard for crack cocaine treatment is a 60-day program, said Gordon.

“But we don’t have the resources.”

Gordon would like to hold a longer program, and a family program, but this would mean cutting some of the other treatment programs.

Alcohol and Drug services only offers 28-day programs because “it’s the best overall way to treat addictions when you’re not treating specific drugs,” he said.

Longer, more varied programs, a bigger building located further away from downtown bars, and a halfway house are some of Gordon’s dreams.

“People come out of treatment and end up going back to the same hell they are trying to leave,” he said.

“They feel trapped.”

Gordon sees the same clients return repeatedly to his programs.

“It’s not unusual to have someone come back seven or eight times,” he said.

“And on that seventh or eighth time something clicks, and they stay clean.”

Recovery is a long process, said Gordon.

“And treatment programs aren’t the cure.

“They just offer clients the tools to stay clean and sober until it becomes a habit.”

The Yukon Party is committed to dealing with further treatment in the territory, said Premier Dennis Fentie, citing the substance-abuse action plan and proposed facilities at the new jail.

“Most people in (the jail) are going to be doing two years less a day,” said Fentie.

“So, a 28-day (treatment program) is useless.

“We’re going to try and provide programs that will assist them to leave a facility such as WCC and become assets to society instead of liabilities.”

But it’s really up to the individual, added Fentie.

“At the end of the day, when it comes to addictions and substance abuse, the number-one, front-end decision is the individual himself.

“And the government, counsellors, doctors, nurses and professionals can only do so much if an individual is not prepared to make the right choice.”

Health and Social Services Minister Brad Cathers refused to comment on treatment issues in the territory.