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Discharge options for people leaving treatment and detox not enough

People are fragile in early recovery and need safe places to live
People in line at an off-sales kiosk on Main Street in Whitehorse this past summer, open from 9 a.m. to midnight. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

Nineteen times people called and were turned away from the detox centre in Whitehorse during the last week of 2021, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.

Many people requesting help, either in person or by phone, are turned away due to a shortage of beds.

The shortage comes as the Yukon faces an unprecedented crisis of overdose and addiction-caused deaths. The Yukon’s coroner is expected to confirm seven drug-related fatalities in the first 20 days of 2022. (See coverage, opposite page.)

According to Cameron Grandy, acting director of Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services (MWSUS), the Yukon’s only detox program is first-come-first-served. Beds are only held for people coming in from the communities or to allow for travel time from Porter Creek, for instance.

There is current capacity for 12 people in withdrawal services — down from 14 pre-COVID.

Grandy noted that the 19 declined admissions requests may not reflect 19 people, but could include one person calling a couple of times. Their data collection does not differentiate.

Withdrawal services

“They need to change how many beds they have for people,” Nicky Myke told the News.

Myke, who organized last week’s Yukon-wide addiction awareness vigils, explained that it can take years for people to build the courage to quit or reach out for help.

“The time is now for them to quit, and they get there, and then they’re turned away,” Myke said. “I think that’s heartbreaking.”

Myke knows that sober living places are really important for people in early recovery.

Hospital rooms, RCMP cells, shelters, withdrawal and detoxification units, treatment centres, transitional housing and recovery homes provide a continuum of services to meet people where they are, and support them as necessary. Sober, safe living spaces are especially important for people facing their first days, weeks and sometime months of not drinking and drugging.

A harm reduction approach contends that abstinence or active recovery should be not be a condition of housing, and that people need to be housed and supported while using to reduce their risk of serious harm.

“I can’t imagine going through detox, and then getting bumped out of there and having to go to the shelter — it’s crazy,” Myke said.

Myke remembers a friend from Dawson: “He would try all the time, and he had severe alcohol withdrawal that would always need medical intervention or treatment. And he was turned away from there [detox] quite a bit, because they were full, even well before the pandemic.

“He had no place to go. His concerns were that people were using right around him. And so, he ended up falling off. He unfortunately passed away and was found in the river a few years ago.”

Sober living respite

British Columbia has a system of “recovery houses” where people learn to live without substances. They are often the second stop after participation in a treatment program. In Winnipeg, Klinic, a mobile detoxification unit, cites its best success rates when people move through detoxification and stay up to 30 days.

Grandy of MWSUS said the average stay in Whitehorse is three to five days, though many people leave earlier.

With the demand so high for beds at Yukon’s withdrawal services, there are seldom enough beds where people can linger, waiting for a treatment cycle to begin. Nor are there any allocated sober living places for people in early and tentative recovery.

Myke knows what it’s like for people trying to get away from using substances.

“People need to know that people care about them. And they need support from people around them for not drinking,” she said.

Myke pauses.

“That’s a huge issue,” she said. “If your friends are trying to be sober, don’t egg them on, and don’t rub it in their face.”

Myke says about her own story, “What made a difference for me, was losing my friends.” Myke ended up pregnant and that changed everything.

“I didn’t want my child to experience what I did. And I have a reason to keep going now. I think that’s what people need — they need hope.”

Myke went to treatment in 2016. “I went to the treatment here, when it the new one first opened. Oh, man, it was great! They have a smudge room, they have a workout room, but, as soon as you leave that building, you’re on your own and you don’t hear from anybody.

“You are not contacted to make sure you’re okay.”

“And a lot of people end up falling back because they’re alone. And all their friends are out there drinking and they see the fear of missing out.” Early recovery is a fragile time and non-judgemental support is really important.

Myke says it’s hard to stop drinking in a place like Dawson, or anywhere here. “It’s so celebrated how much alcohol we consume. And it’s fun until it’s not, and then you’re judged and shunned”

“I think that’s a territory wide issue that the whole entire community needs to stop thinking it’s okay to drink that much alcohol.” She adds though, “I’m sure the government would not be okay with that. Because they make a lot of money off of them.”

The size of the Whitehorse’s detox unit and the number of beds has not kept pace with the increasing population in the Yukon, nor with the duration of time needed to stabilize from new drug and alcohol combinations.

Grandy alsways says that ”discharge planning, particularly out of our withdrawal management, is as important as admissions.” And he readily admits, still needs work.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at