More people are dying of toxic drug overdoses in BC than due to homicides, motor vehicle accidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined.
qathet region has been particularly hard hit by the toxic drug crisis. Between January and April 2022, the per capita rate of fatal drug overdoses was more than double that of the overall Vancouver Coastal Health region. Powell River is persistently listed within the top five local health areas in BC with the highest rates of drug deaths for the population.
The current fentanyl-contaminated illicit drug supply places all people who access illicit substances at risk of death. People who access this toxic illicit drug supply also face disproportionate systemic barriers that make accessing regular or mainstream health care next to impossible, not to mention the shame, judgment and stigma people face while attempting to reach out for help and substance use treatment.
Substance use is a complex phenomenon that is highly affected by social-structural factors including income, housing, education, previous individual and family history of substance use, childhood and adult experiences of trauma, and the degree of accessibility to substance use treatment and basic health care.
Since the outset of the toxic drug, public health emergency, health care resources specific for people who use drugs in qathet region have grown immensely. However, nurses, outreach workers, harm reduction staff and primary care providers are overstretched by the increasing demand and need for services to address complex substance use and mental health issues.
For decades there has been a paucity of evidence-informed addiction treatment programs and resources. As a community, we continue to treat people with a diagnosis of substance use disorders differently than people who experience other critical life-threatening health care issues by not attending to their essential medical and social needs.
The recent announcement made by provincial minister of mental health and addictions Sheila Malcolmson of the complex-care housing funding for qathet is an evidence-based proposal that will provide relief to people who experience complex substance use and mental health challenges as well as provide the nurses and health-care providers, who struggle to meet the needs of people at the frontlines, with the resources they need.
Although solutions to the social issues related to the effects of substance use conditions are multifaceted and in their infancy, the way forward must be based on science and the best lessons learned nationally and internationally. Successful programs are providing people with stable housing, access to a safe supply of drugs, and integrating harm reduction resources within community organizations and health care services.
People are dying from the complex interplay of the poisoned illicit drug supply, untenable living conditions, poverty, oppression, neglect and social isolation caused by the effects of stigma elicited by some members of the wider community. From the hearts of harm-reduction nurses in qathet, we ask for tolerance and support for the tangible resources so desperately needed to address the tragic and unrelenting toxic drug crisis.
Kate Hodgson and Ellery Cleveland are local registered nurses.