Stigma Feeds Overdose Epidemic

For over two years, we have been hearing of the devastation surrounding the ever-expanding opioid crisis in the Okanagan and British Columbia. The good news is that there is now a strong focus on these issues, but the bad news is that the numbers are simply not declining.

Much of the problem related to the fentanyl and overdose epidemic is the stubborn stigma attached to these issues. Many people feel that the drug user is creating his or her own problem.

It is far more complex than that.

As experts have pointed out, nobody sets out to be an addict. Many young people who experiment with drugs – which has been occurring for decades – or youths who are just looking for a way out of the pain of their alcohol or abuse-fueled home lives, have turned to drugs to escape. In fact, current statistics point to a strong increase in overdose deaths in middle-class Canadian men, as compared to the stereotypical unemployed, homeless drug user. This is due in part to the fact that fentanyl is now found in cocaine, and the people using cocaine consider themselves recreational drug users.

Does it really matter who is dying?

The fact remains that this epidemic is far-reaching and doesn’t pick favorites. People of all ages, social standing and gender are ending their lives as fentanyl attacks them. It was never just a big-city problem, although Vancouver’s East End certainly put a face to the initial deaths. Kelowna has been in the midst of the fentanyl/opioid crises since the beginning, and in fact has the highest number of cases per 100,000 residents, at 37.9 cases.

Groups such as Moms Stop The Harm, a tireless group of mothers who have lost children to drug overdoses, are sharing their stories and introducing their deceased sons and daughters as the complete person they were. They all had dreams and they all struggled mightily with the heroin or cocaine or fentanyl that ultimately killed them. They were all somebody’s child, sister or brother, spouse, Mom or Dad.

We need to talk. We need to talk about the value of each individual life and the love of the families left behind. Nobody deserves what this epidemic is doing, and there are some great organizations working hard to do their share in the battle against untimely drug-related deaths.

Heroes have begun to surface in this battle and without fail, they are the people who simply refuse to attach value to the stigma of drug users.

Big White Ski Resort in Kelowna employs over 1,000 young people each season. This year, says Senior Vice-President Michael Ballingall, training and education on drug abuse and treatment has been included in orientation programming.

As Ballingall points out, there are a lot of international employees at the mountain as well as young guests from around the globe.

“A lot of the internationals don’t realize how bad this is,” he says. “We have naloxone kits with ski patrol, first responders and at the Doctor’s office. All department heads are trained to administer naloxone.” He says their approach is simple.

“We pull no punches and tell no lies. We don’t judge, we educate.”

Much of the stigma is a result of the language used when discussing drug users. Society needs to revise the language in ways that frame addiction as a treatable chronic brain disorder rather than a moral failure. “Addiction” or “junkies” imply personal failings or fault for their disease. This stigma becomes a barrier to acknowledging that help is needed, accessing it and staying in recovery.

Another emerging hero in the battle against drug overdose is St. John Ambulance (SJA). Drew Binette is the Strategic Initiative Lead with the organization. With a background as a health care strategist, he has, he says, ‘the best job in the world!’

St. John Ambulance trains people in first aid and sells first aid kits. These initiatives create funds for SJA to offer services in the community.

“In 2016 we began training volunteers to deliver naloxone and on November 25 we saved a life! We have saved another 59 lives so far,” said Binette.

We knew we needed to develop hands-on training on naloxone to help public sector workers. We created a program, piloted it with different organizations and now it is our goal to incorporate it into standardized first aid.”

St. John Ambulance volunteers work at festivals, concerts and events across the province. Their advanced training and commitment to saving lives is working on the front line. From big cities to small gatherings, SJA has trained volunteers to deliver naloxone to the public.

In Vancouver, fentanyl has been detected in 83 per cent of overdose deaths. And now, one in eight Okanagan residents know someone who is battling opioid dependency. The Coroners Service of BC reports that as of October 2017, BC overdose deaths were up 26 per cent over 2016.

Another interesting stat reflects that over 87 per cent of overdose deaths occurred inside, including nearly 58 per cent in private residences. These people are not the stereotypical, homeless people that are dying. There are no ‘typical’ victims of overdose deaths. They are your neighbour, your co-worker or, most devastatingly, a member of your family.

Today’s focus on overdose deaths provides an opportunity to shine a light on the facts surrounding the nightmare of opioids. Peel back the layers and you’ll discover that these victims were once innocent children and young people with dreams and aspirations of their own.

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