B.C. expanding addiction, mental health treatment

The plan includes 65 new or enhanced services, 195 new treatment beds and 130 new full-time jobs in the province.

Vancouver Sun 4 minute read October 14, 2021

The $132 million announced Wednesday by B.C. to boost substance-abuse treatment and recovery programs is long overdue and is a critical “first step” in bringing about systemic change in how addiction is managed, some experts say.

The goal is to create a seamless system of substance-use treatment that is better integrated and easier to access, with 65 new or enhanced services, 195 new treatment beds and 130 new full-time jobs in the province.

“This announcement represents is a step forward in filling the gaps in the different forms of treatment,” said Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions. “Up to now we have been patching holes in that road as we drove over them.”

A new addiction-medicine consult team will be created at Burnaby hospital. Substance-use assessment and transition services will be increased at Richmond hospital, Onsite Detox and St. Paul’s hospital. The Vancouver Coastal health region will get two new recovery wellness centres, new peer-support programs and employment services. The Fraser health region can expect enhancements to its adult day, evening and weekend support and employment programs, focused on those in recovery.

There will be new residential treatment beds for women in the Interior and Island health regions, and a new sobering centre in Prince George.

Experts in the field say the announcement means B.C. is setting the standard for addiction treatment in Canada.

“Currently, there is no clear path, unlike if you have a heart attack — it’s emergency care, then treatment then maybe an operation to have your ticker replaced, same with for cancer and same with a myriad of other health problems — but not yet for addiction treatment,” said Bill MacEwan, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction. “This is the first step towards that.”

As a founder of the Rapid Access Addiction Clinic at St. Paul’s hospital, which provides detox, safe-drug-supply treatment and access to community treatment, monitoring and support, MacEwan knows there is no on-demand public addiction treatment available in B.C. now, but he believes the province’s spending will lead to true systemic change.

“If a person is in detox, for example, there is no guarantee where you will go next,” he explained. “How do you have that cushion within the system so there is something for you in between? The natural thing would be to go drink or use drugs again and if this person is homeless, where would they live? This a situation where people are turned back into their spots in SROs, where there are drugs and other stressors, so they’re right back into that.”

To help bridge those gaps, the Access Clinic at St. Paul’s will be expanded, with more beds and more peer counselling.


Less traditional treatment programs will also receive enhanced supports, including the Gwa’sala-‘nakwaxda’xw partnership program for alcohol treatment and recovery in Port Hardy. The Indigenous-led program does not focus on abstinence alone.

“What stood out for me and I think what is very interesting is programs like that traditionally haven’t got any money for recovery or treatment services, so that is a really progressive step in the right direction,” said Brittany Graham, community organizer at VANDU, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.

Although Graham’s group advocates for substance users in the city of Vancouver, she says the promise of more government support for rural communities, including withdrawal and treatment programs at several locations in B.C.’s Interior will begin to close huge gaps in services.

“We hear from people who end up in Vancouver because they were sent here to go to detox or to treatment and if it doesn’t work out, they end up being stuck in Vancouver or if they return home, there are no follow up services,” said Graham. “That’s been what’s missing in every small town in B.C. so that continuum of care, when they go back to their communities, is just not there or is very limited so this is recognizing people need to be met where they are at.”

While experts praise the move, they say gaps in data collection and analysis must be addressed.

“Steps are being taken, first steps, but we need to understand if we are doing a good job. Is the public being served?” asks MacEwan.

Graham said government also needs to gain knowledge by increasing support to agencies like hers that advocate for substance users.

“When it comes to drug user groups, it is a very small percentage of funding going to those groups, yet they are responsible for what were once radical ideas that are mainstream now, like naloxone kits and safe injection sites. Those were created by people who use drugs, in an activist role, who were trying to save their family and friends and community.”

The latest B.C. statistics show there were 184 overdose deaths in July, the second highest monthly count on record. There were 1204 fatal overdoses in B.C. during the first seven months of the year.