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Stigma makes life worse for youth meth users, B.C. study finds

Report calls for new measures to deal with damage done by stereotypes, lack of supports, treatment options
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Youth outreach worker and peer harm reduction advocate Kali Sedgemore says young people need specialized harm reduction support services and overdose prevention sites. / Kali Sedgemore

False and harmful stereotypes about people who use methamphetamine drastically reduce access to already scarce harm reduction and health services, especially for youth, according to a new report.

Youth who use meth, a powerful stimulant, often do so for practical reasons like staying awake in order to stay safe, study or work, the report found.

But assumptions about meth users being violent, unpredictable or “zombie-like” often leave youth reluctant to seek care for fear of being dismissed or belittled.

And support for users suffering from sleep deprivation and safe spaces to rest are few and far between, particularly for youth who are street-entrenched or who work nights.

Many also become ineligible for youth treatment programs when they turn 18 or 19, and face even longer waits for access.

“When it comes to meth, and it being so demonized by media, the assumptions that youth are psychotic and are crazy just aren’t true,” said Kali Sedgemore, a peer outreach worker in Vancouver. “They’re using it to stay awake and to survive.”

Sedgemore is also the executive director of the Coalition of Peers Dismantling the Drug War and participated in the January 2020 youth summit that led to the recent report, prepared in partnership with the BC Centre on Substance Use.

They said being stigmatized by health-care providers, employers and landlords makes youth who use meth reluctant to ask for help to manage their sleep issues or mental health. And if they do seek help, few resources exist.

“It’s discouraging having that experience with using meth and just finding there was nothing out there,” said Sedgemore.

The report urges B.C. to develop more meth-specific sleep support like dedicated housing for youth and prescription or over-the-counter medication. It also calls for compassionate and anti-racist care and expanded treatment options, including safer supply, that are targeted at youth.

Rod Knight, the report’s lead researcher, said two-thirds of summit participants were Indigenous, which shows dismantling anti-Indigenous racism in health care is a critical part of improving the response to meth use issues.

“When we have really insidious forms of racism playing out in health-care interactions, it’s only worsened when you have other forms of stigmatization also at play, like stigmatization of substance users,” said Knight, a research scientist with BC Centre on Substance Use and assistant professor of social medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Knight said it is understandable many resources are focused on opioids, as their increasing toxicity has led to more than 6,000 deaths in B.C. since 2016.

But he says there should be more focus on the role that meth can play in overdoses and deaths, as well as their other harms for youth.

“We know that for many young people, crystal meth use co-occurs with other forms of substance use,” said Knight, who co-authored the report.

In the most recent report on overdose deaths in B.C., meth and other amphetamines were a relevant factor in 35 per cent of deaths. Meth’s presence in toxicology tests of victims more than doubled from 14 per cent in 2012 to 39 per cent in 2019.

In the first six months of 2020, 60 youth under 24 died of drug toxicity in B.C.