North Vancouver School District
the natural place to learn©
News Item


This teen is winning his battle

July 23, 2018

​By LORI CULBERT, Vancouver Sun


Cade Hansen is a student at the alternative high school, Mountainside, in North Vancouver. GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG

Eighteen-year-old Cade Hansen’s love for music inspired his roles in the theatre as a youth, his performances in choirs and bands as a teen, and his plan to study music production after finishing high school.

Along the engaging young man’s musical path, though, were detours caused by his struggles with addictions and mental health. The mainstream high school he was attending didn’t intervene sufficiently to get him back on track, and like many young people in that situation he was in denial that he needed help.

“You are not worrying about yourself. At that point, especially as a youth dealing with depression and stuff like that, the whole drug abuse and then teenage depression, it just becomes one dark messy blob,” Hansen reflected about his past. “There had been a lot of inner demons I was battling at the time.”

The North Vancouver teen from a close-knit family was battling anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and an addiction that had morphed from alcohol and pot, to pharmaceuticals like Xanax and Percocet, then to cocaine. After too many emergency visits to the hospital, he was determined to get back on the right path: He enrolled two years ago in Mountainside Secondary, a unique alternative high school that offers a variety of in-house supports including a doctor, counsellors and musical therapy.

The flexible and non-judgmental school has worked for Hansen, who today has eliminated most vices from his life and is close to earning his Grade 12 diploma.

“It brings a big smile to my face when I think about it. It was a tremendous amount of help. … It’s like I have the hospital right here but I’m still learning every day. It’s really, really, really amazing,” said Hansen of Mountainside, which is in North Vancouver.

“Not everyone here is a bad kid or a drug user or broke the law. But just the fact that there is a place here for all sorts who need help, especially us kids who have been down the gutter with drugs and stuff.”

Judy Darcy, B.C.’s first minister of mental health and addictions, is funding a pilot project at Mountainside to see if other schools on Vancouver’s North Shore and eventually across B.C. could offer this type of support to youth struggling with drugs and mental illness.

Since taking power a year ago, her NDP government has been reviewing B.C.’s “dysfunctional” addictions and mental health system, and is promising to announce a new plan in the fall “starting with a focus on child and youth.”

Cade Hansen is a student at the alternative high school, Mountainside, in North Vancouver.
Cade Hansen is a student at the alternative high school, Mountainside, in North Vancouver. GERRY KAHRMANN / PNG
“A major focus … is going to be investing in more support in schools,” Darcy said in a recent interview. “And Indigenous youth are affected in such an enormous way, both by trauma and addictions and overdose deaths.”

Investments in schools cannot be the only solution, though, for troubled teens. When asked about more residential treatment beds, Darcy noted her government recently gave money to the Fraser Health Region for a “first of its kind” youth-only recovery centre, a 20-bed facility in Chilliwack to open next year.

Statistics from her own ministry show a lack of residential youth treatment beds, which are needed for teens with severe addictions or those with unstable home lives. Of the 3,035 substance-use recovery beds in the province, only 115 are earmarked for people under the age of 18.

A report released this week by the B.C. Centre on Substance Use calls for a revamp of the province’s treatment system, including more gender-specific, age-appropriate, and culturally aware recovery services for youth.

Port Coquitlam mother Kathy Wagner tried for years to get help for her son, Tristan Kroeker, whom she describes as a “sweet, sensitive child with a big, goofy sense of humour.” After several unsuccessful attempts at recovery, he was killed last August by fentanyl that had been laced into his cocaine. He was 21 years old.

“I worked really hard to try to find a place to get him. There was nothing because no one would take him without his consent unless he had a criminal record or he had OD’d, which he hadn’t,” said Wagner, a member of the national Moms Stop The Harm group, which is lobbying for a more compassionate approach to drug treatment.

Wagner knew her son, who had a black belt in tae kwon do and loved playing softball, needed help with his drug addiction by age 15, but the education system reacted to his troubles by kicking him out of three different schools. “I struggled for years with my kid in addiction, and got no help or even understanding of recovery at all. No hope and no open doors.”  

Wagner would like to see more youth-specific services that do a better job of understanding what motivates young people to want to get better, especially in schools, which she said must offer more than the hardline don’t-do-drugs message. To provide inspiration about getting clean, she suggested connecting youth in addiction to young men in recovery through sports or other activities, so teens can see the positive side of being healthy.

Wagner tried valiantly to save her son — she sent him to China for a year to study tae kwon do, she sent him to culinary school where he became a talented chef, and she went into debt to fund private drug treatments. The system, she said, is expensive, yet doesn’t provide enough post-treatment recovery support. Today, when young people relapse, it is not as simple as waking up and trying again — because, as in Kroeker’s case, street drugs laced with fentanyl don’t give many second chances.

“In today’s age of fentanyl, they don’t have the opportunity to learn about themselves through process of relapse and recovery because they die,” she said. “I just wish we had a system where … people could actually get the health care they need, when and where and how they need it when they are in crisis.”

Susan Hogarth knows about the dearth of services to aid youth with drug addictions, and just got the go-ahead from New Westminster city council to open the first recovery house for girls ages 15 to 17 in the are.

“We really want to get to these girls before they are showing up at our door much later,” said Hogarth, executive director of Westminster House, which runs several treatment facilities for adult women. “In this opioid overdose crisis, we are losing lives and we want to be able to stop that. We want to be able to put them back on their feet.”

Westminster House’s brother organization for men, Last Door, already operates a 10-bed home for boys 14 to 18 years old. The girls’ version will open Aug. 1 in a heritage home which was renovated with a $39,500 donation from the Hockey Helps the Homeless charity, through which hockey players raise money for people in need.

The new B.C. Centre on Substance Use report says “structured and immersive” residential treatment can be particularly beneficial to a variety of drug users, including at-risk youth.

It also calls for exploring new ideas, including specialized high schools for people in treatment, recovery programs on university and college campuses, and controversial “safe care” for youth with such extreme addictions that forcing them into treatment may be the only way to save their lives.

Leslie McBain, a mother on Pender Island, has advocated change since losing her son Jordan to an accidental overdose. She cautioned that any decision on secure care should not be taken lightly: Evidence, she said, suggests that forced treatment is often not successful in the long run and frequently damages fragile family relationships.

“It is a decision that must have a huge amount of information, discretion and perspective behind it,” said McBain, a Moms Stop The Harm co-founder.

Darcy, the addictions minister, said she has spoken with many parents recently about their frustrations with the services currently available to youth, and noted roughly half argue in favour of secure care while the others think it is too extreme.

“Everything is on the table” as the NDP considers changes to the system, she said, such as analyzing the Infants Act, which sets the age for consent for care and sharing health information with parents, and the Mental Health Act, which regulates when someone can be taken into care for their own protection. Any changes announced this fall won’t have financing until the budget in February 2019.

Her government has made some changes already, such as the creation of seven Foundry Centres in various B.C. cities, where people age 12 to 24 can walk in and get immediate help for mental health and addictions under one roof.

The NDP has also funded the two-year $225,000 pilot project at Mountainside to see how its hub of mental health and addictions services could be replicated elsewhere.

Before the school was opened in 2013, organizers like the school principal, Jeremy Church, visited other alternative schools. He believes what is unique about Mountainside is the large number of community services offered on site, so youth don’t have to navigate bus schedules or other hurdles to make it to appointments.

His 200 students can see a nurse, a doctor, child and youth mental health intake workers, and clinicians specializing in youth with two or more concurrent disorders. Some of the other services there include the North Shore Restorative Justice Society, a high-performance fitness training facility that picks them up twice a week, a Hollyburn Family Services hockey program, a smoking cessation group, a mobile youth drop-in centre, and a food program.

A key issue to be considered in the pilot project, Church said, is: “How do we work to support all kids in their social-emotional development, and then how do we start to tweak things when things don’t start going well for kids?

“(The education system) stands to play a really important role in prevention and keeping kids and families healthy, and knowing when they are not healthy and knowing how to access those supports and services in a timely fashion.”

Hansen’s life changed while at Mountainside.

“When I came here, I just didn’t get help with my education but I got help with my mental health immediately. Immediately. Day 1, I was talking to someone in the office — you have counsellors, you have teacher advisers,” he said.

He has some suggestions about what other schools can do for youth in the midst of addiction who might be unable or unwilling to ask for assistance: “Teaching (staff) to look out for certain things: What a kid looks like when he’s messed up, when should you approach him to maybe ask him if he needs help.”