The Opioid Crisis: A Community Response
I was so fortunate to attend the #AllIn2019 conference as a youth delegate. The conference was held in Victoria, B.C. this past June, and my whole youth delegate experience was funded by RBC and The County Foundation. This article captures my reflections and learnings from one session that I attended called “The Opioid Crisis: A Community Response.”
During this session we listened to a panel of peer mentors who were at various points of recovery from opioid addiction. They were vulnerable and authentic, jittery and humble. They are peer mentors at a drop-in centre in British Columbia. They are charged with pain-stakingly hard work, and it shows. They work with people who are fundamentally traumatized, who feel invalid, who have fallen through the cracks. They see the potential, the hopes and dreams that could be, and extend their hands out to help their peers. Often times, while walking along their own path to recovery.
Since 2016 there have been 10,000+ overdose deaths in Canada. Opioid overdoses have increased to the point of an epidemic in Canada over the past decade. In a scramble to try and address this issue on a street level, a group in Victoria is piloting projects such as an inhalation tent and injection sites where people can go to use their drugs in a supervised and safe space. This allows the peer mentors who work in these facilities to begin to foster relationships with the people who are using the facility. Over time their goal is to mentor these folks into accessing addictions supports, including an invitation to a 15-week incentive-based pilot recovery group. The purpose of this group is to reduce overdose deaths and recidivism by empowering individuals to make healthier choices. Their theory is that by changing the traditional recovery program rules and letting the participants design programs based on positive reinforcement, the attendees will begin to feel a renewed sense of pride and self-worth and will begin to take steps towards recovery. This group encourages individuals to identify their strengths and allows people to exercise their free will at all times, including volunteer urine analysis, the choice to abuse or abstain from drugs, choosing to attend the group, etc.
The peer mentors invest their time and energy with every individual in this pilot program to build a level of trust and understanding, while working together to develop a plan tailored to the individual’s unique needs. The participants are encouraged to set goals such as going for walks, or cutting back their usage, and they report back on them the following week. Over time they set bigger and bigger goals, and gift cards are provided to all participants as an incentive/reward to show and up engage in the program each week. Various workshops are offered through this program to help participants build life and work skills.
When it was time for comments and questions I began to tell the panelists that in my experience in Ontario there is a major gap in proper mental health services due to various systemic barriers such as extremely long waitlists, inability to navigate the mental health system, inability to cover fees for service, etc. I echoed the panelists’ sentiment about addicts often bearing heavy loads of trauma and turning to drugs to cope, and that I think addiction, depression, anxiety, etc. are often symptoms of unresolved trauma. I asked the panelists if these gaps in the mental health system have been their experience in Victoria as well, and if so, is it playing a role in the opioid crisis in their opinion? Their response was this: “If people were receiving the help that they need to heal their mental health, we wouldn’t be having this crisis.”
That was just what I had suspected. There is something peculiar about society; we criminalize the symptoms of trauma. If you have a leak in your sink, do you just shut the water off? Or do you fix the pipe? We need to get to the root of these issues and figure out how to bridge the lethal gaps in the mental health system.
Towards the end of the session, we received Naloxone/Narcan training which is a tool to help save someone’s life during an opioid overdose. In my home community we have experienced recent losses from opioid overdoses. People young and old have died, with their families and friends left devastated. There are Naloxone/Narcan kits available for free in our local health centres, however to my knowledge there have not yet been any basic trainings open to the general public. I want to help mobilize trainings in my community to give people a better chance at saving their loved ones in the event of an overdose.
By Christian Everall, Youth Engagement Worker, Greater Than County Youth Collective.