On January 22, Ken Putnam got a frantic call from his wife Lana.
“Come home Ken. Can you please come home? Our lives are over,” she said.
He raced home to discover his son Christopher had hanged himself in their basement.
He arrived before the paramedics.
A retired RCMP officer, Ken had seen his share of suicides and violent crimes. This was something else entirely.
“I got there first, and Lana was bouncing on the front steps,” he said. “I came in, threw my jacket down, went straight down stairs and there he was.
“I said, ‘Christopher you didn’t have to do this.’” Lana heard me say that, I guess.”
“I heard Ken yell and I got mad,” said Lana. “I thought Christopher was just playing a trick on me. And then Ken came up and said, ‘He’s dead.’
“We tried so hard to save Christopher.”
Christopher Putnam was only 22 years old when he took his own life.
For the last seven of those years he struggled with substance abuse.
“He was a good kid with a huge addiction,” said Ken.
Since his death, the Putnams have been advocating for expanded government services for teenagers struggling with drugs and alcohol.
“It’s not going to bring Christopher back, but it might help other Christophers,” said Lana.
“There’s a lot of them out there,” added Ken.
After learning about Christopher’s suicide, Yukon College student Hailey Jager started a petition calling on the government to act on the addiction problem.
Jager was Christopher’s friend, but didn’t know his parents.
“We just got a call out of the blue,” said Ken.
The petition asks for expanded inpatient services to include those younger than 25 years old, more funding for youth shelters, housing for young people and a treatment centre to be built in Christopher’s name.
They collected almost 600 signatures.
The petition was delivered to the government last week.
“I really hope that it reaches someone in power,” said Vicki Durrant, the executive director of Angels’ Nest, a Whitehorse youth shelter.
Durrant has been working to get kids off the streets of Whitehorse for more than a decade.
“I’m really angry,” she said. “It’s been 12 years and kids are still dying.”
While Angels’ Nest recently received an operating grant from the Yukon government, it’s only enough money to keep the shelter open as a day program.
Durrant would like to offer a supportive living for youth recovering from addictions.
She has the space and beds available, but lacks the resources to staff it.
While the Yukon government does offer a 28-day detox program for people of any age, inpatient care is only available for adults.
Without continued structure and support many kids get sober, but fall back into the same old habits when they come home, said Sam Bennett.
“I was sent down to detox in Saskatchewan when I was 14,” she said. “When I came back I walked right into the same thing.”
Bennett was 12 when she first tried crack cocaine. By 16, she was addicted to ecstasy and morphine.
Now 20 years old, clean and sober, Bennett lectures kids about the horrors of addictions.
There is real need for youth addiction services and housing, she said.
Bennett speaks from experience.
In and out of group homes her whole life, with a father who was a crack addict and a mother she used to steal drugs from, Bennett was fighting the odds right from the beginning.
But drug addictions can’t be predicted.
Despite two loving and supportive parents, Christopher couldn’t escape his demons.
When Christopher started drinking as a teenager, his parents didn’t condone it, but chalked it up to typical teenage indiscretions.
But booze quickly led into harder drugs.
“He came to me when he was 16 – he was really scared – and said, ‘Mom, I did crack.’
“I got hysterical, and that’s when I first started to try to find some help.”
The Putnams put their son into the government detox program
The staff were very helpful, and tried to arrange more treatment in Calgary, but Christopher didn’t want to go.
In the Yukon, the only help the government offers youth after detox is outpatient counselling, but it wasn’t nearly enough, said Ken.
“When anybody is in crisis, having a meeting with a counsellor once a month is not cutting it,” he said.
Christopher continued to spiral down.
He was in and out of the hospital several times.
“Mental health did a telephone assessment with him, but then his next appointment was three weeks,” said Lana.
“What are we going to do? We needed some structure, some support.
“We needed to get him help in a closed, controlled setting.”
Using their own money they turned to private rehab clinics.
The first one they tried was Heritage House in Montreal.
The 90-day program was $18,000 a month.
“Halfway through the program Christopher phoned and said the place had been busted,” said Ken.
The husband and son of the clinic’s director were arrested for smuggling more than 22 tons of hash into the country.
Shortly after that they kicked Christopher out.
“They took him to the airport and dropped him curbside,” said Ken. “They said it wasn’t suitable for him.”
The Putnams never got a refund.
Drug rehabilitation clinics are completely unregulated in Canada.
For parents desperate to find help for their children it’s difficult to know who to trust.
“When you phone those places and talk to the person that’s doing the sales job, they’ll tell you everything you want to hear,” said Ken.
“They work on your emotions.
“Lana would call and hang up and say, ‘I feel really good about this place.’ And he would go there and it would be another waste of money.”
All told, the Putmans sent their son to six clinics and spent more than $100,000 trying to get him help.
With their finances depleted, they asked the Yukon government for help sending him to the sixth treatment facility. They were turned down.
“We told Christopher the government paid for it,” said Lana. “We lied to him.”
That final clinic, the Last Door in BC, was the only one that was any good, said Ken.
Christopher returned and got a job working at the Wolverine mine.
That Christmas was the best holiday they’d had in years, said Lana.
But a month later, for reasons they still don’t understand, Christopher took his own life.
They don’t blame anyone for their son’s death, but by telling their story they hope to prevent other people from going through the same thing.
With so much money available for treating cancer and other illnesses, the Putnams can’t explain why there are so few resources to help teenagers suffering with addictions in the Yukon.
“They say alcoholism is a disease,” said Lana. “Is it?
“Where is the help?”
Contact Josh Kerr at