How to fight the OD crisis

By Marshall Smith

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to Vancouver recently to meet with first responders and health-care workers to tell them the entire country must work together to solve the opioid crisis, the doorway to healing and recovery was opened a little wider.

Recognizing the problem is not isolated to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or major urban centres is a big step in solving this national crisis.

At the time of Trudeau’s round-table meeting and conference, he told listeners, “This is a crisis that seems, for most Canadians, to be very far away. Something that’s limited to certain tougher parts of town, to the West Coast, but we are seeing a spread of opioids across the country and we’re seeing it spread far and wide across socio-economic levels, across communities. We need to come together as a country to help our most vulnerable.”

Most importantly, Trudeau made a clear statement that to solve this crisis we must go far beyond “band aid solutions” and focus on long-term strategies. With this recognition comes a need to focus on recovery and not just short-term fixes.

Harm-reduction can be a necessary first step toward establishing a long-term answer.  We must all look to how we can build upon public health approaches so as to be able to best help people out of a life of addiction.

If we’ve learned anything from the overdose crisis in BC, it is that when harm reduction is relied upon without the additional tools, it does not address perhaps the most important aspect of a long-term solution – ensuring that those suffering from addiction have access to treatment programs and facilities that offer the kind of psychological and emotional support they need for recovery. 

We cannot lose sight of the fact addiction is an illness that requires a broad evidence-based response.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse tells us addiction changes the brain in fundamental ways that result in normal needs and desires being replaced with compulsive behaviours, which override the ability to control what can be dangerous impulses. You would not expect someone suffering from a mental illness to get control of his or her life without any professional intervention, so why would we expect a drug addicted person to recover without medical assistance? 

There is much more that we can and must do to build a long-term approach to this crisis. It can start with reducing the stigma of recovery and advocating for better services, health assessments and referrals for people with addiction.  

Alongside the public health and acute treatment services that must be established, we also need comprehensive recovery services.  This should include establishment of recovery community centres across BC and at colleges and even high schools. 

Every mayor in this province should have a recovery working group, made up of people in recovery, to measure and build their community’s recovery capital and resilience to addiction.

Not until we begin to take a long-term, multi-levelled approach will we be able to resolve this crisis.

– Marshall Smith is chair of the BC Recovery Council 


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