Alberta’s child advocate wants education about drugs, including opioids, to begin in elementary school as part of a plan to address the province’s growing opioid crisis.

Del Graff’s report documents the stories of 12 teens who died from overdoses of fentanyl and carfentanil between 2015 and 2017.

Graff said the report wasn’t meant to lay blame, but rather to find ways to prevent similar deaths in the future. Alberta declared opioid-related deaths a public health crisis last year.

“In Alberta, since 2015, 229 young people age 24 and under had their lives cut short from opioid poisoning,” Del Graff said at a news conference Tuesday.

“It is imperative that the Government of Alberta take quick action on the recommendations contained within this report so that fewer lives are lost.”

The advocate said young people are accounting for more than 10 per cent of opioid deaths in Alberta and that early and continued education could have a positive impact. Graff says 76 young people (ages 15 to 24) died in Alberta from opioid use in 2017, among a total of 733 deaths in the year. That group is among the highest and fastest-growing rates of emergency department visits for opioid poisoning.

The teens included in the report, called Into Focus: Calling Attention to Youth Opioid Use in Alberta, range in age from 15 to 19. Their names have been changed but the report outlines their backgrounds and their journeys to opioid use.

Graff makes five recommendations in his report, with the major prevention piece coming in the teaching of children, beginning in elementary school and continuing right through high school, about the dangers of drugs such as opioids.

“Research indicates that accurate, non fear-based information on how drugs affect the brain and body can be taught and understood by children of all ages,” reads the report. “School programs focused on goal-setting, healthy boundaries and communication have a strong impact on preventing substance use.”

Dr. Susan Christensen, a family physician on the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta, told reporters she has dealt with hundreds of opioid poisoning cases.

“I think it should start in first grade. There is a curriculum for Grades 7 to 12 in B.C. and Victoria that is very comprehensive and I would love to see it embraced by schools all over the place.”

Currently, Alberta’s curriculum offers “introductory information” about substance use “designed as one-time events,” reads the report. “Embedding health promotion and education about substance use into curriculum allows for cumulative student learning as they advance.”

Alberta’s education minister said he would accept the recommendation but couldn’t say definitively if curriculum changes would be ready for the school year beginning in September.

“We are just looking at this report today. I am here to say that I do accept the recommendation around education and curriculum and I will look at an expeditious execution of that recommendation,” said David Eggen.

Other recommendations include earlier and wider interventions, including resources for young people with mental illness and cognitive disabilities, better education for professionals, and updates to current legislation and resources designed to protect children using drugs. The province’s health minister said her department would take the lead and work with other agencies, including social services, justice and education.

“I think we owe it to those kids and to every other child who is using or considering using to find strategies to keep them alive,” Sarah Hoffman said of the 12 teens in the report, which included five females and seven males.

All of them were either receiving child intervention services when they died or had received services within two years of their death. Eleven had had contact with the justice system, nine had co-occurring mental health or cognitive disabilities, six had been confined in a protective safe house and six had spent time in jail. Many had experienced parental break-ups or substance abuse in their families.

-With a report from David Ewasuk, CTV Edmonton