High in Hamilton: What needs to be done about the city’s opioid crisis?

Published May 28, 2020 at 12:39 am

According to Michelle Baird, Director, Public Health Services – Epidemiology, Wellness & Communicable Disease Control, the city realized in 2018 that opioids and overdoses were becomi

According to Michelle Baird, Director, Public Health Services – Epidemiology, Wellness & Communicable Disease Control, the city realized in 2018 that opioids and overdoses were becoming a crisis in Hamilton.

“Our emergency room visits for overdoses in 2018 was three times higher than what it was in 2012,” Baird said.

“Our rate of overdoses was highly concerning to the city at that point. In 2018, we had 124 confirmed opioid-related deaths in Hamilton which was a 41 per cent increase from just the year previous.”

Fast forward two years later to 2020 – the city is still dealing with the issue.

In fact, according to the city’s website, Hamilton Paramedics have responded to 195 incidents connected to suspected opioid overdoses between January 1 and May 19, 2020. Additionally, just between May 11 and May 17 of this year, “56 people visited Hamilton emergency departments for drug misuses or overdoses (includes substances other than opioids).”

So, what is Hamilton doing to combat addiction?

Baird said there is currently a four-pillar approach in place in the city. The goal of the four-pillar approach – which consists of prevention, harm reduction, treatment, and social justice – is to reduce the impact of substance use.

According to Baird, the approach that the city has taken to reduce the impact of substance use has been a collaborative approach between agencies, treatment services, and harm reduction services across the city (many of which have switched to online services due to COVID-19) to ensure there are no gaps.

However, it has become evident that part of combating this crisis in the city is having compassion toward those who struggle with addiction.

Stephen Campbell, a Clinical Therapist at the Shalem Mental Health Network, noted that one factor often preventing people from getting help is stigma and shame.

“The vast majority of people still feel that addiction is a choice and that ‘people could stop if they wanted to’,” Campbell said in an email. 

“This mentality keeps people who struggle with addiction feeling misunderstood and alone. The best approach is to merely ask questions and express concern lovingly instead of blaming, shaming, and problem-solving for people.

“People who are struggling with addictions are often more aware of the negative impacts their use is having in their lives than anyone else, but this knowledge alone isn’t enough to change – they need others to come alongside them and listen to their struggle.”

On the other hand, Dawn Zivanovich, a Psychotherapist, Certified EMDR Therapist, EMDRIA Approved Consultant, and ICF Associate Certified Coach noted that it is also important for anyone who is impacted by another person’s addiction to also take care of themselves.

“It is also important to know your limits and set boundaries and limits,” Zivanovich said in an email. “It is good for family members to get support in dealing with a loved ones’ substance abuse or addictions.”

As one may expect, there is no ‘one solution’ to Hamilton’s opioid crisis. However, the prevention measures that have been put in place, along with awareness, compassion, and education is a good start.

When it comes to education Campbell said: “Seeking out books, documentaries, movies, and articles about addiction can be helpful places to begin – ultimately each person struggling has a different story. The book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté is a great book to start with.”

In hindsight, Baird said that although she’s unsure whether Hamilton could have done anything to completely prevent the opioid crisis the city did start working as soon as they could. 

“As soon as we were aware that there was an issue in the city we initiated a drug strategy very quickly,” she said.

“The city started to work together, we’re very fortunate, we live in a city where there are a number of agencies who have a good working relationship. So, good collaboration across those partners and very quickly expanding naloxone distribution across key-service providers – I think that served us well from the very beginning.”

And in terms of moving forward, “Continue[ing] to make naloxone kits widely available from a variety of places,” Campbell said. “Not criminalizing addiction and the behaviours we associate with it. Many people are charged multiple times for using drugs in public areas when they have nowhere else to go.”

Campbell expanding on this further: “People will not call 9-1-1 if they fear they will be prosecuted,” he said.

“Offering people support and diversion programs such as counselling, and other treatment options will go much further to reduce the stigma and shame. We must provide people with safe, nonjudgmental places to talk about harm reduction, the reasons they use, and ways of making meaningful change.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction, click here for more information and a list of some services available in the city.

Some other services available in the city include:

insauga's Editorial Standards and Policies advertising