It’s been referred to by former federal Minister of Health Jane Philpott as “the greatest public-health crisis we face in Canada,” and recently we got a picture of just how bad it is locally: Peterborough now has the fourth-highest rate of opioid-related deaths in the province.
The Ontario government recently announced a string of new initiatives to combat this crisis, including working to reduce prescriptions of some opioids for pain management and making Naloxone kits more widely available. But these initiatives only scratch the surface: reducing one prescription opioid merely means users will find another one (see the OxyContin users who switched to the much-stronger fentanyl when Oxy production ended).
And Naloxone, a drug that temporarily stops the effects of opioid overdose, has saved many lives, but a solution that can only be administered after someone has gotten to the point of overdose is perhaps the definition of too little, too late.
“We’re well aware of how things have gotten to this point, and the underlying root causes,” says Chris Jardin, Harm Reduction Coordinator at Peterborough’s Your Community AIDS Resource Network (PARN), “but our policies don’t reflect the knowledge that we have.”
PARN is part of a local network of organizations addressing problematic substance use in Peterborough. PARN’s services are based in harm reduction, providing safe injection equipment like sterile syringes and cookers, as well as Naloxone.
Jardin admits that “the vast majority of my work is a band aid,” but this kind of band aid has proven time and time again to be effective, not simply in reducing infection and overdoses, but in putting people on the path to recovery. PARN provides a safe, non-judgemental space where people can access the level of care they feel ready for, with no expectation or pressure to go further.
Opioid misuse isn’t an isolated problem that needs to be solved, but the result of a whole network of societal problems: poverty, isolation, mental health, discrimination, and, perhaps most perniciously, stigma.
Addressing these problems on a government level may require major overhaul of our social services system, but stigma is something that PARN combats daily, and that we can all address in our everyday lives.
“I don’t think we can begin to think about ending the opioid crisis, or ending problematic substance use in our community, before first checking in with ourselves about the ways we are actively contributing to these issues,” says Jardin. “We’re in it for the long haul. This isn’t going to get solved overnight. But I do believe that we can create a safer community in Peterborough through relationships.”
Illustration by B. Mroz.