Next week is National Addictions Awareness Week (Nov. 26 to Dec. 2).
With the country in the midst of the opioid crisis — which is believed to have killed more than 1,140 people in B.C. between January 2018 and the end of September 2018 — raising awareness around addictions is perhaps more important than ever.
Melanie MacDonald, the executive director of the Seasons House Shelter and Support Society in Quesnel, agrees. “Thousands of people are dying across our country. In fact, new numbers are saying 10 [people are dying] every day, and so it’s important to raise awareness around substance use to address stigma and discrimination.”
She says people need to feel safe coming forward and asking for help and support, and raising awareness would help reduce the stigma surrounding addiction and make it easier for those in need to access the available services in the community. She adds that awareness is especially necessary in rural communities like Quesnel.
But while she thinks Quesnel is taking steps in the right direction, MacDonald says she doesn’t think the city is where it needs to be to help people with addictions in our community.
In particular, MacDonald says there needs to be improved access to physicians with experience and understanding of working with people with a substance use disorder. She says Quesnel is missing a detox facility, access to treatment facilities, and needs shorter waitlists for the support spaces which do exist in town. She says the city also lacks on-the-ground street support for those with addictions.
But it’s not just the accessibility of treatment programs and supports in the community which are an issue: housing is another significant barrier to people suffering from addictions.
Even when people are able to access addictions services, once they get treatment and return to Quesnel afterwards, MacDonald says many of those who she works with end up returning to the shelter.
“When you’re homeless, it’s very difficult to escape some of those previous coping mechanisms [like addictions], when you’re surrounded by it and your life is kind of in chaos, in a state of uncertainty,” says MacDonald. Stable housing plays an important role in staying sober.
Seasons House provides harm reduction services to the community. This means, for example, they have a program that provides safe supplies to those who want them. The supplies can help reduce the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV in the community. Seasons House also runs a Take-Home Naloxone program.
Naloxone is able to reverse an overdose, something MacDonald says is “critical” in the middle of a “public health emergency when we have overdoses from opiates.”
Since starting the Take-Home Naloxone program, Seasons House has distributed more than 1,000 Naloxone kits to people at risk of overdosing and their family members in the community. Naloxone training takes about 20 minutes — and has the power to save a life.
Staff at Seasons House have also put their Nalaxone training to good use. MacDonald says they have reversed approximately 65 overdoses themselves in the area around the shelter, including on the riverbank and in the back alleys.
Northern Health has also put a focus on helping those suffering from addictions. Debbie Strang, the health services administrator for Northern Health at G.R. Baker Memorial Hospital, says the new Urgent Primary Care Centre at the hospital has identified people with mental health and substance use issues as a key population with a need for the centre.
Strang says those are people who often don’t need to be seen by the emergency room doctors, but still have issues with a level of urgency that they can’t wait several weeks for an appointment.
The Urgent Primary Care Centre opened Oct. 31 and has so far seen 65 patients and is open 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends and stat holidays. There’s a mental health clinician on staff as well as physicians, primary care assistants and nurse practitioners.
Beyond the Urgent Primary Care Centre, the Mental Health & Substance Use community program Adult Community Addictions Services has seen 62 people referred to the program and 51 new people enrolled since Nov. 2017, according to Northern Health media liaison Eryn Collins. The program provides group counselling to those suffering from addictions, among other services.
Another Northern Health-run program in Quesnel, Opioid Agonist Therapy (OAT), has seen 60 new referrals and 55 new enrollments in the same time period. OAT is a treatment for addiction to opioid drugs. It involves taking opioid agonists methadone or suboxone to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioid drugs. Participating in OAT can help people who are addicted to opioid drugs engage in counselling and therapy, according to Interior Health.
Also in October of this year, the city was announced as a recipient of a $75,000 grant from the Community Overdose Crisis Innovation Fund. The money will go toward hiring an individual to implement a strategy to address addictions issues in Quesnel, as well as toward co-ordinating a peer-to-peer support program in the community. The strategy was created over months of meetings with representatives from the city, Seasons House, Northern Health-funded initiatives, the Tillicum Society Native Friendship Centre, the Salvation Army, and others who play a role in the lives of people with addictions.