On Tuesday, many communities around the world marked International Overdose Awareness Day, a chance to campaign to end drug overdoses, and remember without stigma the people who have died as well as the family they all left behind. In Guelph, a few hundred people gathered in St. George’s Square at lunch hour to remember another pandemic that has only gotten worse since COVID-19 hit our shores last year.
“It is a day to remember our loved ones, whether it be family, friends, acquaintances, or the unknown,” said Karen Lomax, the Overdose Prevention Co-ordinator of HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health (ARCH). “We remember their smiles, their laughter, their sorrow, and most of all the pain and the struggle as they fought against addiction.”
That fight has gotten worse since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Public Health Ontario, there were over 12,500 ER visits last year related to the use of opioids, which is an increase from 10,500 in 2019, and a huge jump from just 4,400 in 2016. The bigger jump though is in the number of deaths. In 2020, over 2,400 people died from cases of opioid-related causes, an increase from just over 1,500 in 2019 and 867 in 2016.
“It’s heartbreaking, just heartbreaking,” Lomax said. “I hear folks say that they just need to get it together. They just need to pull up their bootstraps. They just need to get sober and life will be so much more better. But if you’re sober, your problems don’t go away. You get can’t get sober and your homelessness disappears. Last time I checked, that’s not how it works.”
Lomax said that people suffering from addiction are let down by a system that treats their pain enough to get them addicted and then cuts them off and forces them to seek drugs on the street. She also explained that the social safety nets are inadequate with Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) not giving people enough support to cover basic needs, especially in a city like Guelph where the rent on a one-bedroom apartment often exceeds the monthly payment from these programs.
The drugs help people forget their problems, but the pressure to get sober can do almost as much damage.
“We put such pressure on folks to get sober and when they fail, we shame them. We call them names, we tell them they are dirty, and we certainly don’t want them in our backyards,” Lomax added. “When sobriety fails them, people feel like they’ve failed and so the cycle starts all over again. They think relapse is inevitable, and they have just confirmed to themselves and their families that they can’t remain sober and they are a lost cause.”
Turning things around requires more housing, a living wage, more mental health support, and more options for treatment, Lomax said. “We need to realize that addiction is a health issue, and we need to treat it as such.”
Fitting then that the first recipient of a new annual award for recognition from the Peer Advisory Committee goes to the Safe Supply Program through Guelph Community Health Centre. This program assures that drug users are able to get a safe and reliable source for the substances they’re dependent on in lieu of the frequently poisonous drug supply on the street.
“The Safe Supply Program puts folks in contact with much needed support. They’re in contact with a doctor weekly, and they have the ability to talk to a doctor that understands substance use without stigma or shame,” Lomax said. “We need to give folks options and opportunities and to realize that we are all different and in need different components to live our best best lives.”
Lomax also announced a new fundraising initiative through ARCH for the construction of the “I Remember” memorial, a garden with a long path that leads to a circular bench surrounded by patches of long grass to signify all the people in Guelph and Wellington who have died of drug poisoning. Lomax said that it occurred to her at last year’s Overdose Awareness Day memorial that people who have lost friends and family to drug overdoses needed a non-judgemental place to grieve and remember.
“This mother told me that she’s been to groups for families who have lost children,” Lomax explained. “She thought she could find support with other families that understood the loss of a child, but unfortunately, that was not the case. She was shamed and told she did not belong because her son did it to himself. He had a choice, he chose addiction.”
“At that moment, I realized that stigma continues in death. Families can’t even grieve without stigma,” she added.