BC father advocates for change after losing son to opioid crisis

They're 'dying of shame'

Sitting on his boat brings back a flood of memories for North Vancouver father Matthew Witt.

It’s the same vessel he and his son Sebastian were set to embark on a weeklong sailing trip, almost six years ago now.

Sebastian, or Seb for short, had been clean for more than a year at the time, after struggling with an opioid addiction. Four days before they were due to set sail on their father-and-son adventure, Seb relapsed. He didn’t tell his dad or his friends he was having problems again, and alone in his room on the night of May 18, 2015, he turned back to a habit he had been trying to shake since he was 16 years old.

He died after taking a toxic supply of fentanyl at age 20.

Seb was found in his room with his rescue dog, Rio, by his side. The two had been inseparable, said Witt, adding he’ll never forget what it felt like to have to pull a confused Rio away from his son for the coroner.

“He had a relapse – and this is where the stigma comes in – instead of coming and talking to us or his friends or anyone, he did what causes so many people to die,” Witt said. “He was in his room by himself, he used after having not used for a long time, and the fentanyl killed him.

“It’s a story that’s becoming too common.”

Witt is not alone in his grief. In 2020, there were 1,724 illicit drug toxicity deaths in British Columbia, according to BC Coroners Service figures, and the numbers are continuing to surge. A further 329 people have died in the province in the first two months of 2021.

February was the 11th consecutive month in which B.C. has recorded more than 100 lives lost to the opioid crisis. There were 155 deaths recorded for the month. That’s more than five deaths per day.

Heartbreaking national data further emphasizes the severity of the situation, with 19,355 “opioid-related overdoses” between January of 2016 and September of 2020.

When Seb started using opioids, “It was the early days of this crisis, now it's a full-blown emergency,” Witt said.

“Back then, fentanyl was around but people were so cognizant about it,” he recalled.

“He played rugby, hockey, soccer, loved snowboarding, sailing, music. … And then, him and his friends got involved in OxyContin, and it was just too much for a lot of them,” Witt said, adding that a school friend of Seb’s was prescribed the drug.

From OxyContin the addiction spiralled, and eventually led to heroin and then fentanyl use.

“It was very difficult for him, in the beginning, just to tell us,” Witt said. “We knew something was going on, but because of the shame, the stigma attached to it, he wasn't entirely forthcoming about the severity of his problems.”

Before Seb’s sudden death, he appeared to be “doing well.”

Witt has been focused on trying to change that negative stigma through advocacy work ever since he lost his son. He wants to shift drug addiction further out of the criminal and moral realm and further into the public health sphere.

“A huge issue is the shame around addiction and substance use that drives people to do exactly what Seb did – use alone in their room,” Witt said.

“We need to move towards an attitude where we're dealing with this through public health and creating a regulated safe supply to stop fentanyl from killing people.

“That'll stop people from hiding their addictions in shame. Dying from shame.”

If you have a family member going through addiction struggles and don’t know where to turn, you can start by calling the HealthLink B.C. 811 number to find services in your area. For those with youth up to the age of 24, you can contact Foundry – a one stop shop of services.

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