Sometimes even heroes need rescuing.
We hear much of the desperation of people living on the streets, addicted to drugs and at risk of overdosing on account of fentanyl. But what of those working to help them? Emergency responders, front-line health care workers and volunteers collectively dealt with roughly 1,400 drug overdose deaths in B.C., last year alone, during the course of their work.
During what Judy Darcy, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions, described as an “epidemic of poisoned street drugs,” this province has seen over 800,000 visits to “safe consumption” sites, or overdose prevention sites and “5,300 overdoses have been reversed at those sites and not a single life has been lost.”
|Judy Darcy, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)|
That’s of course not counting people who have died on the street or in their own home from overdosing. Ninety per cent of people dying of drug overdoses are dying because they are using drugs alone, Darcy noted, and are alone because of the “stigma” attached to drug abuse.
To combat this crisis some 100,000 naloxone kits have been distributed and “at least 20,000 of those have been used to reduce an overdose.” Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is administered to block the effects of opioids. It is injected, or sprayed into the nose.
At risk, though, are not only the drug users’ very lives but also the mental and emotional health of those people who tirelessly work to help them, in the thick of this social nightmare, from day to day.
“We know that we’re saving lives,” Darcy remarked. “We know the number would be far higher if it weren’t for the work of these heroic people on the front line.”
To help the helpers, the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions last year set up a Mobile Response Team to help first responders and front-line workers cope with the toll their work takes on their own lives.
Carolyn Sinclair, manager of the MRT program, said there are currently 10 members on the team but the aim is to have 15 by this summer’s end.
|Carolyn Sinclair, manager of MRT. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)|
“It may not seem large in numbers, but we’re very nimble,” she said. “Each of our members are assigned to health authorities and their contracted agencies as well, and we mobilize, that’s what we do. So based on the need and the request we figure out, kind of like a task force, who’s the best in our team to respond to that incident and we mobilize.”
Emotional support counsellors, psychologists, first responders and art therapists are among her team. “We have a traumatologist on our team who’s trained in dealing with identifying the impacts of stress and trauma in our bodies and in our minds,” she added. “We’re kind of a mixed bag of people. Many of them bring seasoned years of experience helping people and helping first responders and helping people on the front line.”
Last week marked the first-year anniversary of the MRT, celebrated in the Police Victim Services boardroom last Friday in Newton. Sinclair said she is humbled by the work they do .
“We are the helpers who help the people who are helping everyone else,” she explained. “Part of our mandate and response is to respond to the first responders, the front-line workers, people with lived experience who are our peers, for the overdose crisis.”
What the MRT does is provides first responders and street workers with immediate short-time support in the form of advice and strategies to cope with the ongoing trauma they are immersed in and related fatigue and stress. Their service is confidential, and by all indications, well used. In its first year the MRT reached out to 592 agencies and almost 7,000 individuals in 57 communities in B.C.
“We want them to understand that trauma can change them but it doesn’t have to harm them, and we want to provide tools and strategies and solutions and creative options about some of the things we can do,” Sinclair said of first responders and front-line workers. “We like to think that we can be proactive in our support by providing education and being there before as well as after critical incidents. We know that sometimes it’s about meeting people where they’re at in their moment of crisis but it’s also about giving them tools to help themselves.”
“The front-line workers are the people that are saving lives every day. They’re the ones that we support. They are the people that we find are very difficult to help and it’s very important that they recognize that they also receive permission to not be OK, and that’s why the provincial Mobile Response Team exists.”
Marty Jones, the volunteer services coordinator of NightShift Street Ministry, located at 10635 King George Blvd., trained about 700 volunteers last year.
|Marty Jones, volunteer services coordinator of NightShift Street Ministry. (Photo: Tom Zytaruk)|
His organization is helping desperate people on 135A Street on a daily basis.
“Interacting with the friends on the street,” Jones said. “We call them friends because to us we don’t see a barrier.”
Jones said about seven months ago members of the MRT contacted NightShift, offering to help its volunteers with self care, boundaries, and compassion fatigue. “All of these things that we experience on a daily basis, things that we may have seen. Years ago it was ‘Oh, that’s just a sign of weakness, when I go home at night I just need to drive around the block a few times to clear my brain.’ Well, there’s a lot more to it now because we’re seeing the trauma, and just the heartache on a daily basis.”
“I really want to integrate them into what we do on a regular basis,” Jones said of the MRT, “because I think it’s key, even for our staff in the weeks ahead we’re going to be using some of their materials, to just take that time and to breathe as a staff and to take care of ourselves as we take care of those who are in so desperate need.”
The MRT, he said, is needed, “and we are grateful.”
Currently the MRT will be funded by the provincial government until 2020, to the tune of $1.7 million annually.
Darcy, who is Canada’s first minister of mental health and addictions, said B.C.’s NDP government is trying to support workers and volunteers who “are bearing the brunt of this crisis” early before they develop post traumatic stress disorder. “As I tour the province I have heard from so many people on the front line that ‘The MRT is what helped me save my mental health, and enables me to keep on going.’”
“When we say four people a day are dying, those are not statistics, those are devastating losses to the people who are affected,” she said.
To the volunteers, first-responders and front-line workers, the minister says, “I also see in you the pain that you’re experiencing every single day. But your professionalism and your unwavering commitment to supporting each other, to supporting others on the front line is truly inspiring and I just want to say again the work you do is absolutely heroic.
“Every day that we are saving lives out there we are escalating our response to the crisis and we know there isn’t one single group, there isn’t one single policy change, there isn’t one single action that is going to end this epidemic of poisoned street drugs.
“The only response is for all of us to act together. This is a public health emergency.”
She noted the MRT works in collaboration with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre which supports 20 community action teams in communities like Surrey “that are the hardest hit by the overdose crisis.”
Meantime, Darcy said her government has increased access to life-saving prescription medication, including last week in Surrey, through the Fraser Health Authority, “access to injectable opioid substitution therapies, because we have to provide alternatives to the poisonous street drugs.”
The government has also doubled the number of locations for overdose prevention sites and “safe-consumption” sites, including SafePoint in Surrey, “where every single day lives are being saved.” SafePoint, on 135A Street and next to the Gateway Shelter, offers supervised oral, intranasal and injection drug use and is open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day.
“If people are living on the streets, if we save someone’s life from an overdose and they go back to living on the streets, there is no pathway to hope. So we’re tackling issues ‘upstream’ by investing in housing, in childcare, supporting youth aging out of care, who are one of the groups most at risk of developing addictions, because we need to give people the support to be able to build healthy, stable lives.”
“People who use drugs are real people. They are not some other, over there. They are us,” Darcy said. “We need to get to a place where people who use drugs, or people living with mental illness, are treated with the same dignity and the same respect and have the same quality of care as anybody living with any other health issue.”