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Deadly consequences: People falling through cracks waiting for addiction treatment

Executive director of the Round Lake Treatment Centre Marlene Isaac.
August 10, 2018 - 8:00 PM

NORTH OKANAGAN - Working at a centre that helps people overcome their drug and alcohol addictions, Marlene Isaac says its tough knowing that some individuals die waiting to get into treatment.

Isaac is the executive director of the Round Lake Treatment Centre in Armstrong. Tucked away just a few kilometres down a dirt road that branches off of Highway 97, the centre overlooks the serene waters of Round Lake and is encircled by Ponderosa pines. Over its nearly 40 years in operation, the centre has seen roughly 11,000 people graduate the program, but there are others suffering from addictions who sadly never make it there at all, Isaac says.

“We do lose clients, they’ve died going back out into the community because they can’t keep clean until the next treatment program begins,” Isaac says.

The centre requires at least two weeks of clean time before admission, however waiting lists can be as long as six months.

“In today’s environment and in light of the opioid crisis, individuals who are not able to access safe living facilities while awaiting treatment (or) treatment programs are at great risk of relapse and possibly death,” Isaac says.

That’s why the centre — which is jointly funded by Interior Health and the First Nations health Authority — is conducting a feasibility study for a new withdrawal management and pre-treatment facility.

The idea is that individuals seeking help with their addictions would be accepted into a detox program and pre-treatment facility immediately upon referral, then move seamlessly to the treatment program.

“More withdrawal management, stabilization, treatment and recovery beds are needed to reduce waiting times and provide seamless transitions in the continuum of care thereby increasing the success rate for such programs and reducing the number of opioid deaths,” Isaac says.

Having a pre-treatment and detox facility would also address the problem of people arriving for treatment without the two weeks of clean living. Because the centre is not medically equipped to handle withdrawals, those individuals currently cannot stay at the facility. That means that if five people in an intake show up still actively engaged in their addictions, the program runs under-capacity.

“I feel like we’re wasting beds,” Isaac says. “If we could fill those beds to capacity all the time through people not having fallen through the cracks we’d be much more effective at what we do.”

For someone with an addiction, the waiting game can be deadly.

“They’re living a lifestyle where all their friends and people they’re with are probably users too,” she says.

The Painted Turtle Lodge, a 10-bed recovery home for people who have completed a treatment program.
The Painted Turtle Lodge, a 10-bed recovery home for people who have completed a treatment program.

The centre has a 35-bed treatment facility for men and women over 19, as well as a relatively new 10-bed recovery home for people who have completed a recognized treatment program in B.C.

Angela Stephen is the life skills coordinator and resident nurse at the recovery home and says after care for individuals is critical.

“It is needed more than words can even say. There are not enough recovery homes,” Stephen says in the sunny entranceway of the home. 

Men and women sit outside overlooking gardens and the lake. Inside, rooms are filled with inspirational quotes, framed family photos and artworks created during therapy sessions. To make it feel more like a home, there are no numbers on the bedroom doors. Clients stay here for a minimum of two months and a maximum of six months. The longer the better, Stephen says.

“Leaving a six-to-eight-week-long treatment program is a good start, absolutely, we can celebrate that, but if they’re going back to their community that’s still unhealthy we have to keep in mind that the people they go back to haven’t changed, only they have, so to stay in recovery or stay on that red road is very, very difficult.”

The red road is a term used in spiritual teachings and refers to the right path of life. The treatment centre weaves traditional First Nations healing practices such as smudging and the sweat lodge into the program. Anyone is welcome, although the vast majority of clients are First Nations, Isaac says.

Like the treatment program, the 10-bed recovery home is always full with a waitlist and Isaac estimates they could open up another 30 beds and still be full. The key, she says, is in the continuum of care and having supports for people before, during and after treatment.

The Painted Turtle Lodge, a 10-bed recovery home for people who have completed a treatment program.
The Painted Turtle Lodge, a 10-bed recovery home for people who have completed a treatment program.

Isaac will be pursuing funding for a pre-treatment and detox facility from both the First Nations Health Authority and Interior Health. Not only would it save lives, she says, it would also be cost effective.

“You can talk about the cost of treatment and the cost of recovery homes, but the cost to the police departments and the city and putting up beds for homeless, and the jail system far outweighs any cost there would be to add beds to our treatment centre,” Isaac says.

Helping one person onto the red path can have much wider benefits to society as well, she says.

“I think the healing that takes place here is miraculous. The people that leave and live in wellness, it’s like a ripple in a creek or on a lake, it just expands because it helps their families and it helps their communities,” she says.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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