Drug users are people, too

NHL players have supported teammates through substance use, and now it's time for the Vancouver Canucks to acknowledge fans battling their own addiction issues, retired goalie Kirk McLean says.

McLean is the ambassador of an awareness campaign the Canucks announced Monday by placing two ads around Rogers Arena. They each feature a man and a woman and the tagline: "People who use drugs are real people. Get involved. Get informed. Get help."

The campaign is in partnership with the province's Mental Health and Addictions Ministry, which will also include messages on television, social media and billboards.

B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016 because of an unprecedented number of overdose deaths.

The BC Coroners Service recorded 1,208 fatal overdoses between January and October last year. The powerful opioid fentanyl was detected in 999 of the confirmed and suspected deaths during that time, an increase of 136 per cent from the same period in 2016.

McLean stood in the stands on Monday during a Canucks practice as players saluted first responders including paramedics and firefighters who are often on the front lines reviving people who have overdosed.

He said he's hoping the ads will spark conversations among friends and families as they attend Canucks games so the stigma attached to illicit drug use is broken, among professional athletes too.

"Hopefully people take notice and we use this celebrityism, so to speak, to say: 'Listen, athletes have issues too. They're just like everybody else. Yes, we put them up on pedestal but some go home and have to deal with drug abuse and mental health issues and hibernate in their homes by themselves.' "

The message to fans is: "You're not alone. We're here to help you out," McLean said in an interview.

Three of McLean's former teammates suffered through mental health issues and addiction to drugs and alcohol, including one who was suicidal, said McLean, who retired in 2001.

"It was scary, it was hard core," he said. "Some days, we weren't sure if we were going to see them again."

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said the campaign is meant to leave a powerful impression on people who could help others struggling in silence.

"Turning the tide on this overdose crisis will take each one of us," she told a news conference at Rogers Arena.

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