When Helen Jennens lost her son Rian to a prescription drug overdose five years ago, she believed it was the worst thing that could happen to a mother. She was wrong.
On January 14 2016, Helen lost her second son to drugs. This time, the long-reaching tentacles of the killer drug Fentanyl ended the life of her son Tyler, at age 40. Tyler, a struggling heroin addict, had been seeking help for his addiction. The “point” of heroin he’d taken was later found to be pure fentanyl, and it appeared to have killed him instantly.
Tyler’s was not the face of a stereotypical drug user. He was a handsome, funny, smart, industrious man with two kids. He was close to his large family. His drug use started some seven years ago, when he was given opiates after surgery. He had been to rehab and received mental health counselling. He had detoxed and become clean and went back to drugs. It was a struggle that would see-saw for five years, following the death of his brother.
Upon the death of each of her sons, Helen immersed herself in the fight against addiction. She undertakes countless interviews and works hard to end the silence and the stigma of drug addiction. She promotes education and has linked up with organizations and individuals who are already part of the battle. She is helping to create hope and change for the future. She has become a respected voice in the battle against death-by-drugs, and her recommendations may come as a surprise to many.
She is involved with several progressive groups working on addiction and mental health strategies and solutions. She gives tirelessly of herself when approached by frightened or grieving parents.
“The work we are doing is not for ourselves. It’s too late for our kids. But addiction is wide-spread and it can happen to anyone. I know that. No one sets out to be a drug addict. We’re trying to help other kids, and they could be yours,” Helen says. “The largest percentage of fentanyl deaths are recreational drug users, kids who go to school or play hockey.”
Despite all of the pain her sons and her family have suffered, she believes there is cause for hope through understanding, communication and education.
Helen speaks of the “wall of shame” associated with drug addiction, which affects not only abusers but their entire families. Addicts feel deep shame for their lack of power over drugs and their families share that burden. The beginning of the solution is simply to start talking about it and creating awareness of the facts surrounding drug addiction. And, she believes, addiction begins with “the hole in the soul,” to paraphrase Dr. Gabor Mate.
Dr. Mate is a preeminent expert on addiction and its relationship with mental health. He spent many years practicing from his own clinic on East Hastings Street in Vancouver, has written critically acclaimed books and is a renowned speaker on the subject. Dr. Mate believes that addiction is related to deeply personal, emotional pain that an addict suffers from…the “hole in the soul”. On February 27, Dr. Mate will be speaking in Kelowna as part of the Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use (CYMHSU) collaborative and University of British Columbia Okanagan campus (UBCO) Speakers Series.
Fentanyl-related deaths have seen a dramatic, province-wide increase in 2016. Last spring, the Government of British Columbia declared a state of emergency related to drug overdoses. That declaration should result in the creation of resources to battle these problems, although Helen says it has been somewhat slow to happen.
“Opiates and painkillers prescribed for pain are often the beginning of addiction. Many addictions start with prescription pads. And there are those who, after just a single experimental use of a drug, become addicted. These actions lead to a lifetime battle against addiction.”
Helen is actively involved in the CYMHSU collaborative, which involves people from all walks of life including doctors, police, parents and mental health experts. Funded by the BC Government, their goal is to open a “hub” in Kelowna, one of six planned for BC.
“We are developing a fully integrated health-services hub. If someone arrives in the morning, the goal will be to have them seen by the appropriate professionals and have a plan developed that same day. We envision a people-friendly, relaxed atmosphere with one stop access to immediate care. The Hub is going to fill some gaps in the current system. If that hub had existed earlier, maybe my son’s life would have turned out differently,” Helen explains.
She is also part of a second group, Moms Stop the Harm. It is a network of brave Western Canadian mothers who have lost children to drug misuse, and who now advocate for policy reforms based on science and human rights. Their goal is to reduce the various harms for people associated with problematic drug abuse. See momsstoptheharm.com for more details.
“Harm reduction is the approach here,” says Helen. “A dead addict can never recover. We want to keep them alive and safe until they can make a better choice on another day.”
While supervised safe injection sites remain a controversial topic, Helen says there are some very good reasons to consider that option. Drug use is contained, paraphernalia isn’t left on the streets and addicts regularly connect with professionals who can help them overcome their dependency.
Helen believes decriminalization should be considered, as other countries have done so with much success.
“If you decriminalize drugs, you take the biggest, baddest players out of the equation – that is, the dealers. They’re all about greed. You would get rid of tainted drugs and stop the needless, preventable murder of people who unknowingly consume fentanyl.”
In the short term, she says, there is much to be done and even more to hope for. Youth speakers must be trained to speak to other kids and their parents about the dangers of drugs.
And, more affordable recovery beds are desperately needed. The broader access to naloxone is already saving lives and it will be even more readily available over time. She points out that another life-saving measure would be to make it impossible to access the ingredients to create the drugs, including tightening border controls.
Throughout her personal struggles, and those of her sons’ family, Helen has managed to chart a personal course of action that reflects her high hopes for change in the future.
“Every single life is worth saving,” she states emphatically. “Losing a life, like Tyler’s, is a profound loss for his children, his mom, his sister and grandparents, to name but a few. The ripple effect is vast.”
She repeats the need for peer-to-peer counselling, to talk to adults and kids about drug abuse, depression, anxiety and sexuality. The consortium is creating a supply of trained speakers.
The group is working closely with students at UBCO, who are preparing a campaign against drug use for their students. After preliminary work is complete the program will be rolled out into the broader community.
“When we bring down the wall of shame and stigma and start talking about it; when we become truly honest and open-minded, we will get ahead of this issue,” Helen states.
“The responsibility lies with all of us including parents, kids, government, health organizations, police and the general public. It’s time to create a caring, connected community.”