Earlier this month, five local organizations received a total of $2.9 million in funding through the federal government’s Substance Use and Addictions Program (SUAP) to address the overdose crisis through life-saving initiatives like safer supply, naloxone outreach and peer-based programs.
“As we've seen, over the last few years, the state of the overdose crisis is just becoming more and more serious and extreme. The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that at least 20 people a day are dying from drug poisoning. In the province of Ontario, it's estimated to be on average 8 people a day. Those are incredibly distressing numbers, and we need to do something about it,” said Kristen Kerr, executive director of Stonehenge Therapeutic Community Centre, one of the organizations who received funding.
“These services are vital. We need to listen to the people who use and need the services, so that we know we are doing what they need in order to help them get the right support,” she said.
And with an emphasis on lived experience and peer-based support, that’s exactly what these programs are doing.
Other organizations running the initiatives include Wyndham House, Mental Health Association Waterloo-Wellington (CMHAWW), HIV/AIDS Resources & Community Health (ARCH) and the Guelph Community Health Centre (GCHC).
“I can't even begin to tell you how many lives it's saved,” said interim manager of harm reduction Karen Lomax of ARCH’s naloxone outreach program, with which they distribute naloxone kits and train people on how to use them.
The program has been running for the past five years, and the SUAP funding allowed them to continue it for another year, and to expand into Wellington County.
The training is typically done by those with lived experience, which Lomax herself has, having lived through an overdose more than 10 years ago.
Back then, naloxone wasn’t readily available to the public, who had to rely on urban myths about how to revive someone from an overdose.
“Within that circle, you’d hear, if somebody goes down, you throw water on them, you put ice on them, you give them milk,” she said.
During her overdose, Lomax had water thrown on her, and woke up soaking wet with paramedics standing over her. But not only does water not not reverse an overdose, it can cause the patient to drown, as well as making it more difficult for the paramedics to do their jobs.
This is why naloxone accessibility and awareness is so important.
Having had that experience, she is able to tell the people she trains first-hand what an overdose feels and looks like – but it also gives them the opportunity to ask questions about her personal experience, which she said typically makes them more empathetic.
Stonehenge is also using the program to expand its peer-based program in Guelph, and the funding CMHAWW received goes towards training, certification and support for peer support workers.
Through this program, they support people immediately following and for a few days after a drug poisoning or overdose.
“They meet with them at the hospital, a community location, wherever it makes sense, to connect with the person who has experienced the poisoning, as well as their loved ones, because it can be just as scary for them,” said executive director Kristen Kerr.
The peer advocates for the person who experienced the overdose, ensuring they get the best service, and connects them to appropriate services following the incident.
Aftercare in this manner is important, not only because it can be a scary time, but because it can be “a critical moment to potentially make some change and reduce the harm related to their substances.”
For the past year and a half, they’ve offered the program out of Cambridge Memorial Hospital, serving 122 people last year. Kerr said they anticipate the Guelph-Wellington program will support 250 people in its first year. So far, they already have two peers working in the Guelph community.
Stonehenge is also helping to implement the GCHC’s rural safer supply program through mobile and virtual services.
The GCHC have been running its safer supply program in the Guelph area for over a year already, and will be using the funding in conjunction with Stonehenge to expand it to Wellington County. There are currently over 90 people using the program, and it expect to serve an additional 105 people with the expansion.
Different from a consumption and treatment services site, safer supply programs provide prescribed medications to people who use drugs, with the goal of preventing overdoses.
They are typically more flexible and not necessarily focused on stopping drug use, but rather, meeting the existing needs of those who use them. Safer supply programs also connect drug users with health and social services whenever possible.
Research has shown that these services can lower rates of overdose risk, reduce the rate of fentanyl and other street-acquired substances, reduce hospital and emergency room visits, decrease criminal activity and improve connections with medical care, housing and social supports.
“This is a health issue. And it really requires a health response,” said Sarah Haanstra, interim primary health director. “Safer supply is one more harm reduction tool that allows medical doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe opioids and reduce or eliminate a client's reliance on illicit street drugs.”
Meanwhile, Wyndham House is targeting at-risk youth by using the funding to expand its Concurrent Specialized Youth Hub, which provides low-barrier, complex specialized care for youth under 25. Services they offer include mental health and substance use counselling, as well as helping with harm reduction, housing and health care needs.
“These are services they wouldn’t normally be able to access in a traditional healthcare setting,” said Debbie Bentley-Lauzon, the executive director of Wyndham House.
The hub is designed to provide urgent walk-in services “to try and prevent some of the trips to emergency rooms and crisis intervention.” When they say urgent, they mean it: the hub will connect youth with services within a 24 hour period.
Most services only deal with one component – like substance use or mental health. But Bentley-Lauzon said they’ve found the best way to avoid overdoses is by combining the services to meet their needs in an accessible way, as rapidly as possible.
This approach is crucial to reducing overdoses in the region as it eliminates the systemic barriers to accessing care. For instance, someone experiencing homelessness might not remember or be able to get to an appointment booked far into the future.
The program typically helps between 300 to 400 youth each year, but has seen an increase in demand for services, especially since the pandemic. The funding will increase its reach even further.
By addressing housing needs and healthcare needs simultaneously, they ensure that someone who is provided with housing won’t be left without crucial mental health or substance use support, to help them stay housed.
Having to wait three weeks for an appointment can be a deadly option.
She said that if someone is ready to make a change, and goes into a healthcare setting seeking that change, if they’re booked three weeks out for an appointment, “it’s missing an urgent opportunity for intervention when they’re ready for it.”
“So we just want to make sure that there's a safe, welcoming space where when young people are ready for change, we're ready to help them make that change.”