Facing an ‘epidemic’ level of mental illness and addiction among youth, experts are focused on finding better ways to help children like Adriana Falcon, who lost her life to drugs at 15.
SURREY — Every time Rick Falcon thought his teenaged daughter Adriana hit rock bottom, he was wrong.
Her descent into the dark world of addiction happened so quickly he said he almost couldn’t take a breath.
It was a 14-month whirlwind from when the trouble began to when she died.
“These kids don’t usually aspire to put down a GI Joe and pick up a meth pipe,” he said firmly. “Something pushed them to that.”
For Adriana, who overdosed at just 15 years old, Rick said it was a sexual assault.
“She was just never the same. She just never, ever was the same,” said Rick. “She wasn’t her age anymore. She still had braces on when she died.”
Adriana’s life was forever changed the night of July 7, 2012.
That’s the night of an alleged rape, believed to have happened on White Rock’s East Beach after a group of strangers crashed a party the teen was attending.
She was 13.
As Rick understands it, people began to leave and eventually, Adriana was alone with the unknown boys.
“We surmised that at one point the other girls left and Adriana was led a short distance with these other guys who then assaulted her.”
She didn’t tell her parents until the next day.
They rushed her to Surrey Memorial Hospital where she was checked out by a nurse and rape was confirmed.
His once “happy-go-lucky” daughter – a cheerful cheerleader –became withdrawn. She would turn the TV up loud at night and leave her lights on to help her sleep.
She began to drink heavily and on more than one occasion, was found in a South Surrey park after passing out drunk.
“She wasn’t a recreational drinker,” Rick said. “She drank to numb herself. She drank to forget.”
From drinking, Adriana went to marijuana. From there, she began taking speed and ecstasy. Then it was meth and heroin.
She would take off for days, staying in crack houses. Several missing persons cases were opened up. She wouldn’t post on social media during these episodes.
“She’d be gone. She would just disappear,” recalled Rick. “It just rollercoastered. It got worse and worse.”
Her parents didn’t know what to do. Rick said they’d never dealt with addiction in his family.
“It literally became everything was on crisis mode trying to save her,” he said, “trying to keep her alive.”
Rick said he wishes there had been more supports for Adriana.
For more well-off families, rehab is an option.
“Working class people like ourselves, middle-class, we don’t have $20,000 to throw down for two months at a facility,” said Rick. “There’s nothing that’s going to help you unless you want help. Everything is voluntary.
“Our argument is, and still stands, is that your brain at a certain point is still developing cognitively and to put these recreational drugs like heroin and meth, it just wreaks all kinds of havoc. They cannot think for themselves rationally at a certain point.”
It was B.C. law, according to Rick, that made it difficult to make decisions on her behalf. He believes treatment should become involuntary at some point.
“I’m not looking at Johnny smoking a joint in his mom’s basement. I’m talking about people in the league of where Adriana was…. Whether they want to admit it or not, they need help.”
Rick said the closure of Riverview Hospital really pushed all these problems to the streets.
“You see young people out there. There’s not enough resources and not enough involuntary ways to help them.”
Rick said the family tried everything they could think of to help Adriana, and was even successful in getting her certified.
They called Surrey RCMP’s Car67 program and Adriana was taken to Surrey Memorial Hospital for psychiatric evaluation.
“There I was at 2:30 a.m., on the phone yelling at them to not let her out, telling them she was brought there for a reason. After a lot of fighting, they kept her there and ended up certifying her,” said Rick.
But she exercised her right to a review.
“Adriana can present herself very well. She’s a smart girl, very articulate, she managed to get herself decertified,” said Rick.
That was December, 2012.
On Sept. 3, 2013, Adriana was dead.
The 15-year-old was found in a boarding house in Vancouver. What caused her death, according to a toxicology report, was an overdose of meth and heroin.
Rick has been told she was in the company of a 26-year-old man.
According to Vancouver Police Department, they conducted “two very thorough” investigations, “one after the initial event and a second following a review by the BC Coroner’s Service.”
But the file was turned over to the coroner for final review “as it was determined that her death was not caused by the culpable actions of another person.”
More than two years later, the family is still fighting for that coroner’s report, still in the dark about what exactly happened to their daughter.
SURREY’S ‘EPIDEMIC’ OF KIDS IN CRISIS
Sadly, stories of local children and youth struggling with mental health and addiction are far too common. Visits to local emergency rooms for such young people are dramatically on the rise.
The number of children between six and 17 years old appearing at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s emergency room to be treated for mental illness jumped from 916 in 2007 to more than 2,400 in 2014.
In fact, Surrey sees the highest number of children and youth with mental health issues in the whole region, reports Fraser Health.
“These are almost epidemic proportions,” said Jane Adams, CEO of Surrey Hospital and Outpatient Foundation.
The rise comes alongside inadequate resources in B.C., which has just six youth mental health beds – all of them in Vancouver at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
There is not a single “stabilization” bed in all of the Fraser Health Authority dedicated to young people.
This startling trend led to Fraser Health’s decision to create a state-of-the-art 10-bed Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Stabilization Unit (CAPSU), to be located in the old emergency department of Surrey Memorial Hospital.
Fraser Health has committed $4.7 million in capital funding, and another $4 million in funding per year to operate and staff it. Meanwhile, Surrey Hospital and Outpatient Foundation has been fundraising for the additional $2 million needed.
CAPSU will provide patients with five to seven day stays during times of crisis.
Stan Kuperis is Fraser Health’s director of mental health and substance use services and is leading up CAPSU. He says it’s estimated 800 children and youth will use the facility annually.
“We want to intervene quite intensively,” said Kuperis, noting the unit will be for “crisis situations.”
Kuperis said it’s been proven that earlier intervention means better outcomes.
“Early recognition plus appropriate treatment really minimizes the ongoing impact of a mental illness,” he explained.
“We know, for example, that youth in particular, each time they have an episode, they don’t always come back to the same level of functioning they did previously.”
Kuperis said CAPSU will have a specialized team, “made up of a child psychiatrist, psychiatric nurses with specialties in child and youth mental health, mental health clinicians, social workers, occupational and recreational therapists.”
He added, “Having this expertise in one place is going to be crucial.”
Surrey is also looking to approach the issue of youth mental health and addiction from a technological angle.
Last week, it was announced the City of Surrey, Volken Recovery Academy and Surrey Firefighters Society together contributed $1.25 million for a new SFU chair position to dig into how non-invasive technologies can help both with diagnosis and recovery in youth addiction and mental health.
Donna Jones is the City of Surrey’s lead on Innovation Boulevard. She was heavily involved in discussions about the creation of the new SFU chair position, which is currently being recruited for.
“This is to come at the issue of mental health and addictions from another angle and that is by using technologies to detect and address these issues – so not just pharmaceuticals and traditional methods of detection,” said Jones.
The number of youth struggling with these issues is “frightening,” according to Jones.
“The problem exists and it needs to be addressed,” stressed Jones. “Early treatment and intervention and getting to those young people early so those downstream results that often come with untreated or under treated situations, issues of addiction, issues of increased crime on our streets, getting in front of that is crucial.”
But any changes to come are too late for the Falcons.
Rick praised the new psychiatric beds but said if children aren’t receiving proper treatment, “all the beds in the world won’t matter.
“Adriana did not have much in the way of interaction or treatment,” he noted, “to the point she wondered why she was there. What it mainly did was keep her off the streets and from accessing drugs. So yes, a step in the right direction but it should be coupled with appropriate treatment.”
Today, Rick is still fighting to get Adriana’s coroner’s report and is unarguably a different person after losing a child.
“As cliché as it sounds, you really look at life differently,” said Rick.
“I guess you honestly realize that it could all be over in an instant. Even being judgmental, saying, ‘Oh that kid’s just whacked out.’ These are kids that are in trouble, that need help, some of these kids are Adriana.”
A television documentary featuring Adriana’s story aired Friday, Dec. 11 on the Cable Public Affairs Channel.
The film, called Sexual Violence, Social Media and Society: Is Canada Facing a Crisis?, zeroes in on rape culture and the role social media plays.
CLICK HERE to watch the video.
The documentary is hosted by Kimothy Walker, a former CTV journalist and a survivor of a childhood sexual assault herself.