Entering the maze like Sarah Steele treatment centre

The Sarah Steele building might be the most well-used government space in the Yukon. The structure, which is only slightly larger than the standard Copper Ridge home, provides a 28-day inpatient treatment program.

The Sarah Steele building might be the most well-used government space in the Yukon.

The structure, which is only slightly larger than the standard Copper Ridge home, provides a 28-day inpatient treatment program, a detoxification centre, a youth shelter and counselling, not to mention serving as the offices of alcohol and drug services.

Sandy Schmidt, assistant manager of alcohol and drug services, leads a visitor up the stairs to the top floor of the building.

There are enough rooms for 10 patients participating in the 28-day treatment program, which runs nine times a year.

There are some single rooms, but also some double and triple rooms that patients share.

To enter the program, individuals have to have been sober for at least five days.

“But it’s best if they’ve been sober longer,” said Schmidt.

“Some of these people are still sick after five days. Many need much longer.”

The treatment program and detox offer help to people addicted to any substance.

But alcoholism is by far the largest drug addiction in the Yukon.

The program works best if the patients really want to make a change in their life, said Schmidt.

Patients sometimes come to the program because of a court order.

This sometimes works, but other patients seem to just be putting in time.

“You can’t force someone, it has to be voluntary.”

Live-in treatment is very intrusive.

Patients have to give up their work and family for the entire 28-days of the program.

This can sometimes be a huge obstacle, especially for women with children, said Schmidt.

“The first step to get into treatment is to find somebody healthy to look after those kids, and if she doesn’t have that, she’s not going to go to treatment.”

Still, 10 spaces a month is often not enough, and there are waiting lists to enter the program.

Sometimes, the wait is long, especially considering the program is gender segregated, serving women one month and men the next.

The program used to accommodate up to 14 patients.

However, a couple years ago, Health and Social Services decided to create a youth shelter in the Sarah Steele building.

The youth shelter program, which is run in partnership with Skookum Jim Friendship Centre, is intended as a last resort for youth with no where else to go.

The shelter consists of a sitting room and two bedrooms with two beds each.

“It took four of our treatment beds,” said Schmidt.

“It’s fairly consistently used, but more so with a few youth very consistently.”

The tour continues down a number of stairs to a series of half-floors that remind one of an M.C. Escher drawing.

Unfortunately, the somewhat institutional look of the Sarah Steele Building also reminds some First Nation people of the residential school system, said Schmidt.

This can deter them from seeking treatment at the building.

Staff try hard to make the place feel like home.

There are couches, plants and TVs set up like any living room.

Motivational posters line the walls – the kind featuring a dramatic word like “Perseverance” or “Friendship,” with a photo and quote to match.

The meeting rooms, programming rooms and treatment rooms each come equipped with their own supply of coffee.

Even though it is between treatment programs, the building feels busy and full.

The tour passes the assistant deputy minister, various live-in treatment counsellors and the custodian.

One is forced to hug the wall to pass by them in the narrow hallways.

In the basement are several offices that will soon be cleared out because of problems with radon, asbestos and mould.

A long-overdue building renovation is scheduled for next month and will provide some additional office space.

It will also add more security for these offices and the current administrative spaces. Right now, anyone can walk into these areas right off the street.

Up the stairs again and through a secured door leads into the detoxification services.

This service is always open and allows people a place to go through safe withdrawal from alcohol and other drugs.

Awareness and education sessions are provided and patients can also receive referrals to further treatment, self-help groups and other support services.

Obviously, most patients are intoxicated when they enter detox. But patients need to be able to check themselves in on their own and are not admitted if their blood alcohol level is higher than 0.35 per cent.

At that point, it’s recommended patients go to the hospital. Staff usually call a taxi to get them there.

But often the patient doesn’t wish to go to the hospital and winds up going home or back to the street.

There is space for up to 10 patients in the detox program, but sometimes this is difficult to reach because rooms have to be gender segregated.

If one female patient comes in, two male patients could potentially have to leave. And priority is given to women because of concerns about pregnancy and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

But there is the option for patients to come in and spend the day at detox, even if there isn’t a place for them to sleep.

The tragic death of Robert Stone in early May hit detox centre staff pretty hard.

After a night spent being passed between ambulance services, the RCMP and Whitehorse General Hospital, Stone checked himself into the detox centre and died hours later.

Schmidt couldn’t talk much about the incident, but acknowledged staff had a relationship with both Stone and his partner, who had also recently passed away.

“The staff took it really hard,” she said.

“But I think it’s a gift that he was here with us when it happened and not alone somewhere else.”

It was the first death since the detox centre opened in 1997.

Alcohol and drug services staff often see families pass through their programs.

First, there is the mother or father, who are dealing with alcohol addiction, and later their sons and daughters who suffer from the same affliction.

“It’s hard for the staff to see those generational problems,” said Schmidt.

Some of the staff were once patients who originally came to the program for help.

“So we have a combination: people with an education side-by-side with people who have had the experience,” said Schmidt.

“That’s what makes these services work.”

To make the services work better, staff would like the funding to provide aftercare for their patients.

Right now, patients are more or less left on their own after the intensive 28-day treatment program.

There are Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and drop-in counselling if provided, but this is often not enough, and many patients can relapse.

Ideally, patients would have some sort of transition home or halfway house to help them integrate back into society gradually.

The problem is additionally hard if the patient is from the communities.

“It’s hard to run away from your past when you’re in a small community,” said Schmidt.

“But at other times, this can be the best situation because people look out for one another.”