A Podcast about Mental Health and Addictions

Episode 9: Alberta

Episode 9: Recovery-Oriented Systems of Care (AB)

May 19, 2021 – Alberta’s person-centred approach addresses more than an individual’s mental health and addiction challenges. It’s about improving their quality of life by supporting balance and healing in all aspects of their health and wellness. The Alberta model is based on successful practices seen around the world.

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Addictions-specific resources

  • Addiction Helpline – call 1 866-332-2322

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Loretta O’Connor: Welcome back to the Promising Practices podcast. This is the nineth episode in our 13-episode series on mental health and addictions. The podcast is an initiative of Canada’s Premiers. The aim is to share promising practices that are underway in each province and territory with respect to mental health and addictions.

My name is Loretta O’Connor. I’m Executive Director of the Council of the Federation Secretariat, an organization that supports the work of Canada’s Premiers.

Today we are in Alberta, a western province bordered by the Rocky Mountains to the west, prairies to the east, badlands to the south and boreal forests to the north. Well known for their natural resources and the employment that they provide, Alberta is traditionally one of the fastest growing provinces – and one of the youngest. The average age of the 4.4 million population is 37.5 years old. Most people live in the two major cities of Edmonton and Calgary, although smaller cities and rural communities are vital elements of the province.

Similar to other jurisdictions around the country and the world, the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the well-being of Albertans. This is especially true for vulnerable individuals experiencing addiction and mental health challenges.

Today we are going to learn more about Alberta’s vision for addiction and mental health care, as well as some key initiatives the province is undertaking to support those who need this care. We are also going to hear from some individuals on the front lines who deliver those services…and an individual in recovery from addiction who has accessed those services for himself, and who now helps others on their journey to recovery.

First, let’s hear from Premier Jason Kenney about Alberta’s strategic vision and overall approach to addiction and mental health care. 

Premier Jason Kenney: Hi, I'm Jason Kenney, Premier of Alberta, and I'm happy to be participating in the Council of the Federation's Promising Practices in Mental Health and Addictions podcast to talk about how Alberta is changing perspectives to provide more effective and comprehensive addiction and mental health treatment services.

This is a subject that is really close to many Albertan’s hearts, including my own. After a tough economic downturn that has lasted five years, we've also been hit by the pandemic and forced to deal with the unintended consequences of public health measures necessary to control the spread of COVID-19. The result of all of this has been a strain on mental wellness and challenges with increased substance abuse, including addiction.

Everyone knows someone who may be struggling. Making improvements in this area means taking a different approach. And that's why Alberta is transforming its system of care and the way we think about these issues to a recovery-oriented approach that addresses both addiction and mental wellness.

Alberta's approach is focused is on acute interventions designed to manage the negative health effects of these chronic issues. Certainly, this approach has saved lives in those situations, but it's not been enough. Focusing only on disease management has come at the cost of building a system, which can promote self-care and reliance on each other, on family, at workplaces, and where members of our community are united to solve these challenges. There's so much more to the life of the person dealing with substance abuse or mental wellness issues than those acute situations.

In recent years, we've seen a more effective way of addressing these challenges. And that's why Alberta is implementing a recovery-oriented system of care, which spans a continuum of prevention and intervention, treatment and recovery. Our Alberta model is being developed based on successful practices seen around the world.

Under the leadership of Jason Luan, our Associate Minister for Mental Health and Addictions, one of the first steps that Alberta's government took was to form a Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Council. We recruited Council members from a diverse group of mental health and addiction stakeholders including folks who have lived experience. Experience in emergency and crisis services, mental health and addiction recovery services, primary and home care settings, Indigenous health, justice, law enforcement, and civil society broadly. Our approach recognizes that there are many paths to lifelong recovery. It also recognizes that every person, family, workplace and community find strength and resilience in different ways.

Recovery from addiction isn't just about sobriety. It's also about improving the quality of life by seeking balance and healing in all aspects of health and wellness. While being free of illicit drugs is an important part of a person's recovery, it's not the only thing when applying a recovery-oriented system of care approach. For an individual, recovery can also mean opportunities for education, employment, better health, better housing stability and social connectedness amongst other things. Success in recovery is ultimately measured by improvements in an individual's whole life, not just their relationship with illicit drugs.

A recovery-oriented system of care supports that journey by offering a range of options designed for each individual’s specific needs, giving them choices for getting help and taking responsibility for their own recovery. It's an important distinction. The recovery-oriented systems of care approach is person-centered, which is key as it's designed to build on a patient's strengths. It's also community-based, bringing family, allies and workplaces together to build a recovery community around individuals who are in need of support. Through this recovery-oriented model, our aim is to build a world class publicly funded continuum of care on a network of community-based services and supports here in Alberta.

We've already taken some important steps to creating that system. Alberta's government is providing $140 million over four years to increase access to a full continuum of recovery-oriented mental wellness supports, including responding to the opioid crisis. In 2019, we announced the creation of 4,000 new publicly funded treatment spaces over four years. We've surpassed that number with new residential outpatient and detox spaces being created in urban, rural and Indigenous communities across the province. We're also investing in five therapeutic recovery communities across the province to provide long-term, individualized residential addiction treatment services. Through those communities, we are adding 400 treatment beds to make recovery communities broadly accessible. And this represents a 30% increase in the bed capacity in Alberta. Last week, Alberta's government took the dramatic step of eliminating all daily user fees for publicly funded residential addiction treatment services. It's a simple step, but a very significant one.

Improving the access is the first step. Alberta is also dramatically increasing the quality of life by ensuring all residential addiction treatment providers are licensed and accredited by national accreditation bodies, something I'm proud to say Alberta has now achieved. As part of our continuum of care, we also support outpatient opioid recovery programs. In addition to medical support like opioid agonist therapy, patients in Alberta also receive counseling and other supports, including transitional services. Alberta has 23 of these clinics across the province that are providing gold standard care.

Alberta's Virtual Opioid Dependency Program uses telehealth technology to allow Albertans better to access medications wherever they are in our province. The VODP program serves Albertans province-wide in more than 260 communities. And last year, the VODP facilitated over 1,900 treatment admissions. The vast majority of those nearly 1,200 individuals received same-day treatment and started opioid agonist therapy right away. In fact, this program has no waitlist and has enabled Alberta to achieve treatment on demand. Our new Alberta model achieved record distribution for Naloxone as well as evidence-based opioid medications.

It's important to provide assistance while ensuring community safety is top of mind. And that's why Alberta is creating five new drug courts outside of Calgary and Edmonton, so that more people across Alberta can break free of criminal behavior that's fueled by addiction. We already had those drug courts in the two biggest cities. By simplifying and expanding access to drug treatment courts, Alberta is diverting people convicted of nonviolent crimes to treatment and recovery services. This Alberta model is based on respect. Not only the respect of an individual's ability to recover, but also the social and economic impact that addiction and mental health services can have on the broader communities around them.

We know that some services, like Alberta's supervised consumption sites, have caused concern amongst residents and businesses. So, as we move forward, we're working closely with stakeholders to ensure that existing services and new supports are safely and successfully integrated into communities. Our Alberta model is grounded in the firm belief that people have the ability to recover and to regain their lives, to reconnect with their families, and to rejoin the community to become inspiring and contributing members of their communities.

Canada is caught in the grip of a staggering overdose crisis, which requires new, innovative responses. And one example is our recent creation of a digital overdose response system. This system will help people protect themselves while using opioids and other substances at home alone. The system will connect Albertans to emergency services automatically if they become unconscious due to an overdose. This system will also connect users to provincial addiction recovery supports and services like the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program, helping to ensure that people have the information they need to move forward on their journey to recovery.

This is important work. While we have come so far, in just two years, a lot more needs to be done. I've met Albertans who are transforming their lives, who feel optimistic about the future again. I've heard their stories and I've seen the proof. We still have a lot of work to do, but inspiring things are happening here in Alberta. And I want to thank again Associate Minister Luan who you'll hear from next.

And let me just say to anyone who's listening and thinking of making a change for the better, help is available. You can find safe, comprehensive care and peace of mind. Just call 1-866-332-2322. That's the Addiction Helpline in Alberta. You can also contact 211 to get directly pointed in the right direction or 1-877-303-2642 for the mental health helpline in Alberta. If you're not ready to talk to someone, you can find more information at Whatever you choose, remember that you have the strength to change and supports will be there for you. That's a commitment. Thank you.

Loretta O’Connor: We just heard from Premier Kenney about the Alberta model and the direction the province is taking in addressing addiction and mental health issues. We will now hear from Jason Luan, Alberta’s Associate Minister responsible for Mental Health and Addictions, who will discuss the ongoing work Alberta is doing to transform the addiction and mental health care system in Alberta.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Hi, I'm Jason Luan, Alberta's Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addictions. As we heard from Premier Kenney, Alberta is focused on helping more people get the help they need to recover from addiction and mental health challenges. The Alberta model is being built on the belief that everyone has a right to be supported in their recovery and face as few barriers as possible. Alberta's government is building a coordinated system of services that share a common measurement of success. These outcomes are client-centered and recovery-oriented, meaning that they evaluate various aspects of an individual's life. In other words, we're shifting from our focus on acute interventions to assessing and increasing the recovery capital of Albertans, who enter the system of care and ensuring long-term support is available for them.

Recovery capital is a measurement of individuals’ internal and external resources that the person and the community can use to support them to enter and maintain recovery. By measuring recovery capital, we will be seeking to increase people's strength in eight domains. Those include physical and mental health, family, social and leisure activities, safe housing and healthy environments, peer based-support, employment and resolution of legal issues, vocational skills and education development, community integration and cultural support, and finally rediscovering the meaning and purpose in life. So, as you can see, this is a holistic approach that touches on an individuals’ mind, body and spirit. Evidence has shown that if the individual has a deficiency in one or more of those domains, it can impair their recovery process. That is exactly why we are focusing on increasing the recovery capital of Albertans, so that more Albertans can enter recovery. And when they do so, they will receive the support they need to maintain their long-term recovery.

Moving forward, Alberta will begin evaluating programs and system outcomes based on the operator’s ability to increase the lives of Albertans in the areas I mentioned before. This will shift Alberta away from only focusing on system utilization, which is what we currently have, to a system where we actually understand how a program is changing people's life. This outcome will also allow us to gain a better understanding of which programs are successful in changing people's life. It will also support Albertans to make more informed decisions about their own care and the care of their families and friends when they can see which programs are best suited for their recovery capital development. Building recovery capital does not stop with the individual who is accessing the care. Recovery is inclusive of workplaces, families and communities. Everybody has a role to play in increasing the recovery capital of our community, so that the individual who enters the system of support can better understand and support their recovery.

A major keystone in building recovery capital in Alberta is increasing access to publicly funded treatment. Alberta’s government is augmenting funding for the recovery-oriented treatment sector, supporting skilled service providers, building the well-designed infrastructure and encouraging the community to build their own recovery capital. In Alberta, we are well-positioned to make this happen. Alberta’s government has made a solid commitment of $140 million for multi-year funding to ensure more Albertans are able to access recovery. We're also fortunate to have a world class non-profit sector and community groups who are dedicated and ready to support Albertans. Alberta's government, along with our community partners, is working diligently to move people out of addiction and into a life of recovery. Today, Alberta has funded well over 4,000 treatment spaces, with more announcements to come. We will help more Albertans experience improved health and mental wellness and lead fulfilling lives

Another key decision we made in Alberta is treatment will be free for everyone in the province. Previously, Albertans would have to pay privately to access these treatment services. In addition, there was a $40-per-day user fee for publicly funded residential treatment programs. This meant that a six-week treatment program would have cost around $1,600 for publicly funded space, and thousands of dollars for privately funded treatment services. People who are part of the provincial income support program, or AISH program may have qualified for financial help, but for many Albertans, the cost had to be covered privately. This included students, seniors, single parents and anyone who made too much to qualify for income support, but not enough to pay privately.

As of October 2020, all publicly funded spaces in Alberta now have no user fees for access to treatment services. That means all Albertans regardless of their income or social standing, will be able to access high quality recovery-oriented care, further reducing barriers to recovery. This was quite a complex initiative as we not only had to consider Albertans who need help, but also the service providers who rely on those daily user fees to operate. But the good news is, in the end, we designed this new treatment funding framework that provides consistent, stable and streamlined funding with clear service expectations for operators.

To further support increased access to recovery-oriented care, Alberta’s government will be building nearly an additional 400 new treatment beds in recovery communities across the province. Recovery communities, also known as therapeutic communities, offer residential care much like other treatment programs, but they take an even more holistic approach that considers the needs of the whole person. These communities fit into Alberta’s larger shift towards a recovery-oriented system of care by focusing on helping residents treat their addiction and mental health challenges, as well as focusing on the role of a positive relationship and life skills in a person's recovery. We're learning that it is not always enough to manage addiction and treatment or health challenges. We have to consider physical and emotional wellness, educational goals, life and employment skills and the connection to their family and community, if we want to make sure individuals can be set up for success when they eventually leave treatment.

Another way we're reducing financial barriers to increase recovery capital is through the Opioid Agonist Therapy Gap Coverage Program. This is a program that covers the cost of medications to treat opioid use disorder for up to 120 days, giving Albertans time to apply for and receive coverage through a supplemental health benefit plan. Opioid agonist therapy is delivered at Alberta Health Services opioid dependency program clinics throughout the province. There also is a virtual option, which in 2020, helped to facilitate over 1,900 treatment admissions in more than 260 communities. The Virtual Opioid Dependency Program is not only accessible, it is also effective. Looking at our data from when we increased the funding for the program, at that time about 40% of clients had reported an overdose incident upon entering the program. After a year into the program, fewer than 10% of clients had reported an overdose. That is a remarkable 30% drop of reported overdose incidents. Not only is it effective, but Albertans can access treatment on demand through the virtual opioid dependency clinic from anywhere in the province.

While the ultimate goal is recovery, we recognize that everyone's journey is different. For some, harm reduction initiatives support them to find recovery. As part of the process of increasing recovery capital, we will be bringing the system together, ensuring that harm reduction services are also measured by how they make the lives of Albertans better and connecting them with treatment. In Alberta, we also have widespread distribution of Naloxone kits. Through the program, more than 321,000 free Naloxone kits have been dispensed by Alberta Health Services in the last five years. Alberta has actually achieved the highest rate of Naloxone distribution in the history of our province.

Data from the past four years shows that the majority of people dying as a result of overdose do so in their private home setting. In response, we announced the Digital Overdose Response System or DORS, which will begin the testing phase in Calgary this summer. The system is one of its kind in Canada and it builds on the reliable technology already being used to ensure that person’s safety while working alone. Albertans using opioids or other substances alone will be connected with emergency services in case of a presumed overdose. The system will also provide information on national and provincial addiction recovery supports and services such as the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program we talked about earlier today.

I've been proud to serve as Alberta's Mental Health and Addictions Associate Minister, and I look forward to sharing many new exciting actions and innovations to come. If I can leave listeners with one message, it is this: recovery is real, recovery is attainable, and recovery works. We will continue to work to ensure that every Albertan who needs it is able to access help and support on their path for long term recovery. Thank you so much.

Loretta O’Connor: Thank you, Associate Minister Luan for sharing that information with our listeners. Increasing access to supports is a vital component of any approach to addressing addiction and mental health challenges.

Now let’s hear about Alberta’s drug treatment courts, an initiative to address the root causes of drug-related crime. Joining the conversation is Matthew Reid, Director of the Drug Treatment Court Expansion with Alberta Justice and Solicitor General.

Matthew Reid: Hello. My name is Matthew Reid and for the last year I've been working on the Government of Alberta's Drug Treatment Courts Program as the director of the courts expansion. As a former probation officer involved in the Calgary drug treatment court, I've seen the impact drug addiction has on individuals, families and communities, and the associated cost of the crime that stems from addiction. I've also seen the positive impact drug treatment courts can have on participants and the opportunity for healing and reconciliation that the programs offer.

Drug treatment courts are an evidence-based practice offering a fair, firm and compassionate approach to dealing with addictions and effectively addressing the underlying causes of drug-driven crime. Internationally, drug treatment courts are established and fixed entities following set standards and principles in their operation, which have been proven effective for over 30 years. They use a non-adversarial court process to hold participants accountable for their criminal behavior, as well as providing individualized drug treatment programming.

These multi-disciplinary courts involve judges, federal and provincial prosecution services, court services, probation, police, legal aid, duty counsel, and community treatment and service providers. Drug treatment courts help offenders break the cycle of criminal behavior driven by their drug addiction through drug treatment programming and behavioral interventions. Participants facing serious jail time for drug-driven offenses are provided a chance to avoid a jail sentence by completing this program. They're held accountable through judicial supervision, frequent and random drug testing, and the use of sanctions and rewards. Participants are supported by a team of professionals including addiction, mental health and corrections professionals who tailor treatment programs and interventions to participant needs.

A participant’s journey through drug treatment court includes intensive drug treatment, ongoing relapse prevention, mental health programming, medical supports, housing and employment assistance, and life skills training. These supports are provided in addition to interventions that target participant criminal attitudes and behavior. It's important to note that a drug treatment court isn't simply about sending a participant to drug treatment.

The program's success lies in its ability to address addiction and criminal behavior as separate yet connected issues. When drug treatment courts follow the established principles and standards, their ability to address the factors that lead to addiction and repeat criminal behavior is quite high. In Alberta, our first drug treatment courts started in 2005 in Edmonton, and the second one opened in Calgary in 2007. Both courts adhere closely to these principles and best practices and are considered the gold standard. Since their inception, they reported that 70% of their graduates remained crime free after program completion. In general, drug treatment court participants report decreased levels of addiction risk, whether they graduate the program or not. And those who don't graduate leave the program at lower risk to fall back into addiction and reoffend.

Drug treatment courts demonstrate a significant social return on investment. What I mean by this is for every dollar invested in drug treatment courts, we see significant social benefits, both for the individuals involved in the program and the wider community. As an example, the Calgary drug treatment court estimates that their program can help avoid up to $7 million dollars annually in potential incarceration costs. Additionally, the Calgary drug treatment court estimates that their program saves their community at least $15 million per year in stolen goods alone.

Despite the successes, drug treatment courts can face challenges establishing themselves. Historically, new drug treatment courts rise slowly through grassroots initiatives in motivated communities. Once operating, drug treatment courts often struggle to find consistent support and stable operating funding, because of their defined structure, they require certain local support services to be in place. Without these services, drug treatment courts can fail. This can have an impact on small communities, which may lack the crucial support services needed for the drug treatment courts to operate. It is with these successes and challenges in mind that Alberta has built a program to bring drug treatment courts to rural and small remote communities.

These drug treatment courts will become a part of the provincial recovery-oriented system of care that the Government of Alberta is transitioning to. In 2019, the Government of Alberta committed $20 million over four years to create Canada's first Provincial Drug Treatment Court Program that is based on consistent standards and principles. The program expands drug treatment court services in a planned and systematic way, and is opening five new drug treatment courts to serve rural and remote communities outside of Edmonton and Calgary and provides funding and support to ensure that they operate effectively.

Our provincial program is assisted by a member of the drug treatment court community, provides guidance in the development of the new courts, and works with communities and stakeholders to educate and train members on their roles within the programs. As part of the expansion plan, we've created a provincial framework that establishes the standards and principles that drug treatment courts in Alberta must follow. This framework also contains a provincial drug treatment court model based on the existing Calgary and Edmonton programs. This model provides a base design for new drug treatment courts to use that is customizable to each community's needs.

Oversight is also part of the provincial program and is guided by a robust evaluation process created to assess the ongoing outcomes of the drug treatment courts and enhance their program delivery. The provincial expansion aims to increase access to drug treatment court services across the province, particularly in rural and remote areas.

In the first phase of our expansion, we doubled the capacity of the Calgary and Edmonton drug treatment courts from 20 to 40 participants served per year each. In phase two, we began by evaluating the needs and readiness of the communities for new drug treatment courts. We saw a lot of need throughout the province but are initially focusing on the communities that have the existing structures and services to support a drug treatment court.

So far, we've opened two new courts over the past year: the Lethbridge drug treatment court opened last November, the first to serve communities outside of Calgary and Edmonton; the Medicine Hat drug treatment court opened this January, and now both courts are already operating with active participants. Our aim is to have the three remaining new drug treatment courts up and running by mid-2022, including Red Deer, which was announced last year as well as two other locations that we are considering. In the final phase of the expansion, we'll examine how drug treatment court services can be delivered to even smaller communities in rural regions and remote parts of Alberta, which may lack the necessary services to support a traditional full-scale drug treatment court.

This provincial project requires substantial work from the drug treatment court stakeholders, and we're grateful for the outstanding support we've received so far from our judiciary, Public Prosecution Services of Canada, Legal Aid Alberta, Justice and Solicitor General ministry, Mental Health and Addictions ministry and Alberta Health Services. Local communities have been very supportive as well, and we've had great interest from city councils, community groups and local addictions and justice agencies. Their support is vital to the expansion and continuing success of the drug treatment courts, and the participants, and to keeping our communities safe and improving the lives of Albertans.

Loretta O’Connor: It’s great to see steps being taken to break the cycle of addiction-motivated crime and to get people the help they need to address their addiction. There are a number of promising practices taking place in Alberta to address addiction related issues.

To close things off, let’s turn the conversation back to Associate Minister Jason Luan who will be discussing Alberta’s new recovery-oriented model with a few of the people on the front lines of providing those supports and services…and how the changes Alberta is making is impacting the lives of those seeking recovery.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Joining the discussion for this last part of Alberta's discussion on building a recovery-oriented system of care are Dr. Nathaniel Day, Medical Director for the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program with Alberta Health Services. Dr. Day is based in Ponoka and works in the Central Alberta Zone. Next one is Lerena Greig, Executive Director with Parents Empowering Parents Society in Sherwood Park. Then it's Earl Thiessen, Executive Director with Oxford House Foundation in Calgary. Following that is Stacy Petersen, co-chair with Alberta Addiction Services Providers and Executive Director with Fresh Start Recovery Center in Calgary. Thank you everyone for taking the time to provide a bit more context to what is happening in Alberta. I would like to start the discussion with a question. Dr. Day, Alberta has over 20 opioid treatment clinics. So why start a virtual program?

Dr. Nathaniel Day: Thank you Minister Luan for the question. Even though there were existing clinics in Alberta, we found that too often these clinics were grouped in the cores of large urban centers. They also typically required people to drop everything – work, family obligations and so on, to travel to the clinic for care. We recognized that if we were going to really tackle opioid addiction, we needed to make treatment as accessible as possible, to as many people as possible, no matter where they lived. Today in Alberta, thanks to government support, anyone using street opioids can call one toll free number and get started on treatment right then and there, no matter where they live. By my last count, the virtual program has served people in over 270 communities. Our program shows decreased overdoses, decreased high risk behaviors like injecting and needle sharing, decreased emergency department and hospital admissions for any reason, increased employment and fewer new criminal justice charges. We are measuring significant improvements in people's quality of life.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Back in June of last year, Alberta’s government provided $4 million in funding toward the virtual program. So how was the VODP growth since then?

Dr. Nathaniel Day: I'm delighted to report that the added funding to VODP has enhanced our service in several meaningful ways. First, we have no wait time. Our median wait time is zero days, and we have never served more people. Since this investment, the number of people we have helped is up by 60%. Not only are we able to help people who call in for a same day medication start, but we also use this funding to create and enhance a transition service. We don't want anyone to fall into health care gaps. Especially with a life threatening and community altering problem like fentanyl addiction, we aim to close the gaps.

For example, if someone today was in the emergency department with an overdose, the ER doc could start the person on treatment medication and send a quick note to us. We would take that handoff and proactively connect with the person, before their next treatment dose was due. We would help that person map out next steps in their care and connect them with appropriate, local resources.

Another example is if a person is coming out of corrections or detox. Or maybe they're headed to an in-person treatment center that doesn't have an addiction medicine doctor, we can help those people get the care that they need, no matter where they're staying. We can bridge their care until they get home and settled into long term options. We even support people desperate for help who are using harm reduction sites, or who are living in shelters. And of course, we know that rural and remote communities also need long-term treatment, so we do that too. As you know, addiction treatment isn't one thing. We know that if we help all the pieces work better together, that people will be better off and our communities will be better for it.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Thank you, Dr. Day. Now I'm going to move on to the next speaker who is Lerena. Lerena, tell us what the Parents Empowering Parents Society is all about.

Lerena Greig: So, Parents Empowering Parents, PEP Society or PEP as we like to familiarize it with, has been around for over 17 years, and was founded in Strathcona County, Alberta, and has been offering free innovative programs to families and caregivers who have a loved one in active substance use or addiction. Those programs are professionally facilitated by people who are trained in addictions and recovery, trauma informed care, knowledge-based experience.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: We provided you with a COVID grant, or community grant, I should say. How has that helped you provide more services to the community?

Lerena Greig: Well, we've been able to expand our services. So, before the COVID-19, we were available in three locations, capital region of Edmonton, Sherwood Park and St. Albert. And what the COVID-19 funding has allowed us to do is to expand Alberta-wide. So now we are a province-wide organization. We've added a permanent virtual meeting, which will remove location barriers, transportation barriers, so that everybody in rural and larger communities will be able to access the services that PEP offers.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Thank you, Lerena. And now I'm going to ask some questions to Earl. Earl, I greatly respect people in recovery. Tell us about your journey.

Earl Thiessen: My journey started when I when I was a young man, a teenager suffering from multiple traumas throughout my life, and not knowing how to deal with them. There's a lot of things that happen to men and young people that you don't discuss openly. And eventually, well, for me, it was mental, emotional, physical and sexual trauma that I had experienced.

Eventually, it led me to the streets, being homeless for seven years, multiple attempts through treatment, multiple attempts trying to get into detox. The access wasn't easy then. Sometimes you had to go back to detox centers three or four times just to get in. And one of the biggest fears for me was the withdrawals, right? Being addicted to pharmaceuticals and alcohol, the withdrawals are pretty torturous. So medical detox was key for me.

When I did get into detox, well, actually, the one of the reasons that sent me into recovery for myself was the murder of my partner in 2007. The last words I said to her, we were in an argument, actually, and I never got a chance to apologize, but carrying that again.

But eventually, I ended up getting arrested – 11 warrants for my arrest, I ended up in front of a JP with those 11 charges, and I got honest with them, I had explained to him that, you know, I had addiction issues. I was trying to cope with the murder of my partner. And I didn't have the tools. I just I just didn't know how to face myself, but I was willing to put myself in that position. I had mentioned his name to her, he had heard about it up in Edmonton. And he said he was going to release me on my own recognizance.

So I grabbed a hold of that opportunity. And I was crossing my fingers, I'd been up to this detox center, you know, numerous times in the past and was turned away every time. But as luck would have it, when I went up there and my withdrawals were kicking in pretty hard. And I had gotten in, so that was a rare occurrence, right, ease of access was extremely difficult then, and you have to get a person when they're ready. You never know when a person is ready. But I'd gotten in. I was already on a waitlist for treatment and that treatment date was two months away. I was absolutely terrified of going back to the streets, not knowing if I would make it to that treatment date.

And that's a huge difference from the way it is now over the past few years since this government has started supporting recovery and mental health. It's just changed the whole landscape. If I had had the opportunity then, you know, the multiple times that I tried to get into treatment and worrying about costs and worrying about where the funding was coming from. You know, I probably would have walked away from the treatment center that day if… it's just a lot of things aligned for me and now everything is lined up and it's a much smoother transition when you're trying to face yourself. It's a huge step for a person to stand in line to get into detox, to be able to have access to detox and be able to have access to immediate treatment is huge. It's a game changer. And that's what it's all about right now.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: What does Oxford House Foundation recovery do?

Earl Thiessen: We are peer supported recovery housing. We have multiple models now. Now that you know that the focus is on recovery, the focus is on getting people to treatment when they're ready and when they're seeking it. So, we've implemented pre-treatment housing into Oxford House Foundation’s model. Aftercare is what we do. We have 15 houses in Calgary, just for continued living with no time limit, there is no time limit on how long you can stay. And that is a godsend for a lot of people. I mean when you're leaving treatment, you're thinking, What's the next step? You can't go back to the same place you were at when you enter treatment, you're a different person. A lot of the focus on mental health is helping people heal. Back when I went through treatment, the first four times, it was almost just like a revolving door.

With the support of the government in Alberta, the whole landscape has changed at Oxford House. We talk about recovery openly, mental health openly. You know, Indigenous recovery is huge. The government's a big supporter of that. Oxford House now is the largest peer and culturally supported Indigenous recovery housing model in the country. And the support is there now. We've been around for 24 years. In the past couple of years, we have moved mountains with growth, and with raising awareness for every aspect of recovery.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Thanks, Earl. That was fantastic. Next, I'm going to turn the question to Stacey. Fresh Start Recovery Center is known as a gold standard treatment provider in Alberta. Stacey, tell us about your organization and your service. 

Stacey Petersen: Fresh Start Recovery Center is a 50-bed, live-in treatment facility for men and families. We've been operating in Calgary for 29 years. We've been selected as one of the top treatment centers in Canada by the Fraser Institute several years in a row, Charity Intelligence out of Toronto is a five-star charity, Calgary awards, Bhayana Awards. And all of that sounds great, but it's completely related to the recovery that lives in our facility. I've been working in the field for over 30 years, and we've had the opportunity to work with many governments typically on a capital level, but I have never witnessed a government step up to support a recovery-oriented system of care like this government has. To put that into perspective for you, prior to this government coming into office, of our 50 beds, and we're a gold standard, nationally recognized awarded organization, great treatment outcomes, about five times higher than the industry average, we were funded one bed. So, this government comes in they announced in February of 2020 that they were going to fund 30 of our treatment beds. And for us, it is an absolute difference maker and those 30 treatment beds are free to Albertans.

You have no idea what that does when somebody picks up the phone and says, you know, do I have to remortgage my house, do I have to… what kind of money do I got to put together to get my son into treatment? And we're able to say, it's okay, you don't have to do that, the province is covering it.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Stacey you're also the co-chair of the Alberta Addiction Service Providers, which represents all the licensed providers in Alberta. Tell us all about that role.

Stacey Petersen: So, myself along with Kim Turgeon, the executive director of Aventa in Calgary, a phenomenal organization for women's treatment, we both co-chair the Alberta Addiction Service Providers and we also sit on their board, as well as Recovery Access Alberta. So that organization, the Alberta Addiction Service Providers, houses 30-plus recovery-oriented organizations, and it's a space that we can collaborate in, that we can share best practices, that we can, you know, take that solution and create a bigger voice for the organizations doing the work on the ground.

So again, this provincial government stepped up and said, hey, this is a fantastic opportunity to partner with a group of individuals and organizations that represent thousands of Albertans that are doing phenomenal work on the ground. So, hats off to the provincial government for doing what they have done. I think if you're an Albertan, and you have somebody in your life that's impacted by addiction, and we all do, there isn't one of us that's immune. We all do. We all know somebody, we all have someone in our lives. I would tell you to support 100% the trajectory of where this government is going around this and we will see a marked difference in this province. And it feels right, it resonates with every single one of us.

Associate Minister Jason Luan: Thank you, everyone for your significant contribution to today's conversation. Before I conclude, I want to say that today's discussion really helped everyone to understand what Alberta has been providing for people who live with addiction or mental health challenges. And the message is very clear that hope is there and recovery-oriented system of care is there with you.

If I had to sum up this approach in a few key words, I would say this: recovery is possible, recovery is a personal journey, recovery is inclusive of family, peers, workplace and communities.

This is a message to anyone and everyone who is having a tough time and thinking of getting help. You can take that first step forward, if you're ready. You can find healing and compassion within our Alberta model.

To get started on the road to recovery, you can call Addiction Helpline at 1-866-332-2322, or Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642 or simply dial 211. And people on the other end will guide you to find that resource that you need. For all available resources you can go onto our website at Help is at hand and you don't have to suffer. Please reach out. Thank you.

Loretta O’Connor: Thank you to all of Alberta’s speakers and guests – Premier Jason Kenney, Associate Minister Jason Luan, Matthew Reid, Dr. Nathaniel Day, Lerena Greig, Earl Thiessen and Stacey Peterson – for sharing some promising practices and interesting perspectives regarding addictions and mental health initiatives and changes taking place in Alberta.

Next week, the podcast series will take us to Nunavut where we will learn more about Healing programs being offered to the people of Nunavut. You will hear about the approaches Nunavut is taking to reduce the stigma often associated with seeking mental health and addictions supports, as well as innovative ways to support those in need, especially among the youth.

Please join us again next week for another promising practice in the field of mental health and addictions.


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