'Our province failed' teen who overdosed in Kelowna mall bathroom: NDP candidate

Chelsea Christianson, 17, was told she had a bed at a Kelowna treatment centre but found out she did not qualify because of a bureaucratic policy.
Image Credit: FILE PHOTO

KELOWNA – The NDP candidate for Christy Clark’s Westside-Kelowna MLA seat says gaps in the system contributed to the death of a West Kelowna girl who overdosed while waiting for treatment.

Shelley Cook is the NDP candidate in the upcoming general election but she is also the former executive director for the John Howard Centre in Kelowna where she saw these issues close up for many years. The John Howard Society works to address health and social issues with a focus on criminal justice.

Cook says significant changes at the provincial level must happen soon or more kids will follow the path that led 17-year-old Chelsea Christianson to her death.

READ MORE: Kelowna teen died in mall bathroom after being turned away from drug treatment

Christianson, a Mount Boucherie student, was Premier Clark's constituent.

"We have some major, major gaps in our system where we have very, very, very weak support," Cook says. "Obviously there was a disconnect for that young lady to travel to the coast… and then be turned away. We failed this girl. Our province failed her and her family.

Christianson’s body was found in a Kelowna mall bathroom last month. Several friends and outreach workers who knew her say she had been addicted to heroin for a year and was trying to get clean. She didn't look like a drug addict and friends say she had trouble convincing people she needed help.

An outreach worker who wants to remain anonymous says Christianson had arranged for a space at a Lower Mainland treatment centre but when she arrived was told she could not be admitted because she was from the Okanagan.

Cook says fixing these geographic-based policies is one of the most urgent needs.

“(Regional treatment centres) have quotas in terms of numbers of kids they take from different areas,” she says. “When we have all these rigid structures… people fall through the cracks."

Chelsea Christianson, 17, overdosed and died in a public bathroom the same month she was turned away at a regional rehab centre that wasn't even full.
Chelsea Christianson, 17, overdosed and died in a public bathroom the same month she was turned away at a regional rehab centre that wasn't even full.
Image Credit: FILE PHOTO

She is quick to point out that this is a learning process and not an indictment of the system or the people trying to help. 

“The system cannot be responsive to evolving situations when it’s operating as a skeleton. People are stretched so thin in terms of caseloads and management. These are good people who want to do good work and this is heartbreaking for everyone involved."

“While we can’t always anticipate what new horror is around the corner, when we strip back our health care system… we make the situation ripe for things like this to happen.”

Several sources confirm that Christianson had been living part-time on the streets as her addiction progressed. Cook says this is often the case.

“Housing is a key resource after post treatment, post detox, and post recovery," she says. “Who could maintain sobriety while you’re living on the street? How many people relapse because they’re back in precarious living situations?

“These things are mutually self-perpetuating. (Addiction) really dovetails right into housing and affordability issues."

Cook admits the issue is very complicated, but says it's not unsolvable or even new.

“While fentanyl and the new evolution of the opioid crisis is new, what works in terms of helping people succeed, is not new. It’s people being there and having resources available when people are ready."

Premier Clark declined to comment on the issue.

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