Breaking down stigma essential to preventing overdose deaths

An Ontarian dies of opioid overdose every 14 hours. It’s a grim statistic and one that hits close to home, as well.

It’s a discussion that social sector agencies hope will be front and centre as Canada observes International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. Locally, Addiction Services for York Region (ASYR) wants to promote awareness not only of overdoses, but also the broader addiction issues that can lead to them.

“It’s important for people to understand overdose and what that may mean,” said Penny Marrett, ASYR executive director. “But at the same time, we want to also take the opportunity to let people know about addictions generally and about the services and programs we have to offer the community.”

For those struggling with substance abuse, help is only a phone call away. Anyone in Markham who calls Addiction Services can access an intake appointment at the organization’s local satellite office. Also, every Monday and Friday afternoon, people can walk into the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine clinic, at Markham Stouffville Hospital, for any substance issue ranging from alcohol to marijuana to opioids.

ASYR has also led the charge on getting naloxone, a life-saving drug that counteracts overdose effects, readily available across the region. None of these is a silver bullet; but all are part of what Marrett calls the “continuum” of care. The key is getting people the courage and resources to access that care, which is why International Overdose Awareness Day presents such a critical opportunity.

“There’s a stigma attached to addiction,” Marrett said. “It’s harder for people sometimes because they may not realize some of the symptoms of addictions, so they may not have their own awareness. But when you add the stigma to it, it makes it more difficult (to seek help.)”

Though province-wide statistics give a sense of how many overdose deaths there are, locally, no such data exists. Stigma is one of the major reasons, making overdoses under- or unreported. While the climate for discussing addiction has improved in recent years, it doesn’t go far enough, says Marrett.

“We have a ways to go. Addictions haven’t been discussed as openly and prevalently in the past. Certainly with the opioid crisis that’s going on there’s been a lot more information, and certainly families have come out and talked about their own family experiences with what’s happened due to opioids. But we still have a very long way to go. It’s not easy to talk about.”

However, Marrett is optimistic that having a robust discussion is possible.

“If you look at cancer 40 years ago, we didn’t talk about it,” she said. “Now we’re talking about it much more. There’s been a lot of work and education done. So it’s our vision that one day we’ll be able to talk about addiction without the stigma attached.”

How to get help

Call Addiction Services for York Region at 1-800-263-2288 or 905-841-7007 to speak with an intake worker.

After hours, people in crisis can call York Support Services Network at 1-855-310-2673.

Drop-ins accepted at Markham Stouffville Hospital’s Rapid Access Addiction Medicine clinic, located in Building B, 2WF, Mondays and Fridays from 1-4 p.m.

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