Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Silvina Mema addressing the International Overdose Awareness Day gathering in Kelowna Friday. —Image: Alistair Waters/Capital News

Overdose Awareness Day event hears drug addiction is a health issue not a moral issue

Families of those lost to addiction, and those responding to the crisis, agree more needs to be done

International Overdose Awareness Day was marked in Kelowna Friday with a gathering that heard from the people most directly affected by the issue—relatives of those who have died—and health officials battling to address the growing problem.

“Behind all the numbers is a face,” said Helen Jennens, who lost two sons to overdose deaths and who now works with a group called Mom’s Stop The Harm.

“We want to show the face, and the families behind the face.”

At the second annual event to mark the day in Kelowna, about 100 people a showed up to hear Jennens and another mother who lost a son, Shannon Duke, talk about their children, as well as representatives of Interior Health, the B.C. Coroner’s Service, the RCMP, Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola MP Dan Albas, the incoming president of the B.C. Association of Pharmacists and representatives of several local agencies helping people with addiction and mental health issues.

All said it is important to end the stigma surrounding addiction as it is one of the leading causes of people not seeking the help they need to deal with their drug addiction problems.

“Addiction is a health issue not a moral issue,” said Albas, one that needs to be treated without judgment.

That position was echoed by Interior Health’s Andrew Kerr, team leader with the mental health and substance use unit.

He said the health authority’s safe injection unit sees 80 to 100 people a day , 25 per cent of whom are there to inject drugs.

Many of them feel more comfortable talking to the unit’s staff about their drug issues than they do with family or friends.

“This is a safe place to get help,” he said, adding the equipment is sterile and they can not only talk to nurses and get health information, they can also talk to social workers for support with mental health issues and care facilitators who can direct them to treatment.

“They can start to reconnect and once they do that, they can start to see the hope.”

Many of those who die from overdoses do so alone after taking drugs, the fear of the stigma associated with the practice contributing to the solitary activity. Everyone on hand at the Kelowna gathering said that stigma must end if people are to be helped and lives saved.

Jennens’, who helped organize this year’s event, which included an evening vigil as well as the presentations in the morning session on Friday,said she was happy with the turnout, which she described as bigger than last year.

She said to remember those who have lost their lives to overdoses sould like remembered publicly and she would like to see memorial established in Kelowna’s City Park. It would not only remember the dead but also act as a reminder of the massive public health crisis B.C. is dealing thanks to the current opioid situation.

“If it was there,” she said. “(Family and friends) would always have a place to go.”

She said she would like the memorial to be a bench and a stone, carved like a broken heart.

Last year in the Central Okanagan, 75 people died of drug overdoses compared with 47 the year before. The drug fentanyl is a major contributing factor to overdose deaths and has been found in a majority of the drugs that have killed people in the last year.

Dr. Silvina Mema, IH medical health officer, said despite the work the health authority is doing, the numbers keep increasing.

“I wish I had better news, but I don’t,” she said.

But she said with the efforts of the whole community, she is confident the issue can be addressed and lives saved.

“This issue touches everyone,” Mema said. “Drug use is not a moral issue, it’s a health issue.”

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