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Overdose crisis advocates demand more funding, shorter wait times

This article was posted original on SooToday on by Alex Flood reposted with permission.


It was an educational morning at The Grand Theatre on Saturday as organizers of the Shadows of the Mind Film Festival invited Algoma Public Health to facilitate a panel discussion following the screening of Love in the Time of Fentanyl.

Set in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the documentary highlights the experiences, traumas, and support structures involved in the ongoing overdose crisis.

The 100 or so locals who attended the showing had the chance to listen in on a panel following the documentary, where discussions were had on the overdose crisis happening in Sault Ste. Marie and its surrounding area.

The panel included participation from people with lived experience, as well as various harm reduction, treatment, and service providers, including an addiction medicine physician, Save Our Young Adults (SOYA), Maamwesying North Shore Community Health Services, Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), and Sault Area Hospital (SAH).

One of Saturday’s panellists was Jill McPhee, a mother of an addicted child who currently works with SOYA.

Responding to a question about how the film reflects the opioid crisis in the Sault, McPhee took the opportunity to share how imperative it is to provide locals with a chance to receive help.

“Everybody deserves a life and a chance to live,” she says. “Giving them a chance, maybe just on that one particular day – they may choose recovery. But if they’re dead, they don’t have that choice.”

Amy Lebreton, a Sault resident who is two years clean and back to working full-time, notes that while the film was shot in Vancouver, where the issues may be more obvious compared to the Sault, it doesn’t take away from what’s happening in our own backyard.

“In the Sault, homelessness is still here, and because maybe we don’t see it as much, it makes solutions difficult in this community,” she says. “I’ve lost tons of friends to this disease, and it’s heartbreaking.”

“We need solutions and take those blinders down, or else we’re going to lose more people.”

Algoma Public Health says the number of opioid-related deaths in northern Ontario nearly doubled in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the year leading up to it.

They also noted that most opioid-related deaths are accidental, and during the first year of COVID, 64 per cent of opioid-related deaths occurred when no one was there to intervene.

Recently, several initiatives have been implemented locally to combat the crisis, including the Community Wellness Bus initiative, the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) clinic, the Residential Withdrawal Management and Safe Beds initiative, and the upcoming relocation of the Neighbourhood Resource Centre.

SOYA president Connie Raynor-Elliot is incredibly thankful for these interventions but says more still needs to be done.

“I love the wellness bus, but we need them more,” she says. “We need more funding. The hospital has withdrawal management coming in the future – I need that ribbon cut.”

“It’s sad when I have to transport people from Sault Ste. Marie to Elliot Lake. Suddenly, they finish detox – where do they go? Back in the streets, back in the same environment? We’re setting them up for failure.” 

“Things are coming together, but we have a long way to go.”

Wait times were also a common theme during the panel discussion.

“As the mother of an addicted child, wait times can be anywhere from six to eight months,” McPhee says. “We’re not talking a couple of weeks.”

“If you can afford private, they’ll get you in within 24 hours. We tried that with my daughter four times and probably spent well over $100,000, so we could get her help right away. There’s nothing like that for those who can’t afford it.”

When it comes to addressing the next steps of the opioid crisis in the Algoma region, Christine Gigliotti, a registered practice nurse who currently works in the RAAM clinic at the Sault Area Hospital, says eliminating stigma is near the top of her list.

“Stigma in this town is huge, and we definitely need to decrease that,” she says. “I think a lot of people are focusing on opiates, but we have struggles with so many people right now in regards to alcohol, crystal meth, stimulants, and even tobacco.”

“Addiction doesn’t discriminate.”

Brianna Marshall, a peer support worker with the Canadian Mental Health Association, was also on stage to take part in the panel discussion.

She believes putting additional focus on youth is vital.

“A lot of the addiction we’re seeing is alarmingly getting younger and younger,” she says. “It’s alarming how young the individuals are who are coming to get their harm reduction supplies.”

“They’re not there because they choose to be, but because they’re suffering.”

“I’m very excited for the new youth hub that will be in our community, and I hope it allows a lot of our youth who have experienced intergenerational addiction to get the help they need.”

Facilitating the panel on Saturday, Dr. John Tuinema from Algoma Public Health was pleased with the turnout and the discussions that were had.

“I think we had a great collaboration of people from many different aspects to the response on this crisis,” he says. “It was great to have multiple perspectives on this, and not just from the context of immediate response that’s happening but looking at prevention as well.”

To view a schedule of the remaining showings at this year’s Shadows of the Mind Film Festival, visit here.

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