Every day, three or four more British Columbians die from a drug overdose. It’s the worst public health crisis to hit our province in decades.
Yet the overdose crisis that has devastated so many families has also brought out the best in British Columbians. Frontline workers, first responders and peers have saved thousands of lives, and people living with addiction have braved stigma and fear to seek help for themselves and others.
More and more of us are joining difficult conversations we’ve put off for far too long. The latest important contribution is the Vancouver Sun’s series on addiction treatment highlighting where B.C. is making progress and where we’re still falling short — and they tell the stories of addiction not through statistics, but through the lives of real people.
They’re asking the fundamental questions this crisis poses. Are we willing to stop treating mental illness and addiction as a character failure? And are we ready to treat them with the same respect, dignity and urgency as any other health issue?
In every B.C. community, the answer has been an overwhelming yes. British Columbians are seized with both urgency and compassion, and that has driven our response as a province.
One of the first acts of the new government was to create B.C.’s (and Canada’s) first-ever Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions. Our overriding priority is to address this crisis, as we also develop an integrated network of mental health and addictions services — work that has been neglected for far too long.
We’ve started with the most urgent task: saving lives. That includes training and equipping thousands more people with naloxone, the life-saving antidote that has reversed thousands of opioid overdoses. It also means expanding B.C.’s supervised consumption and overdose prevention services, where we’ve seen 856,000 visits since December 2016, and we haven’t lost a single life. These measures are critically important as we expand treatment, because opioid addiction is a chronic, relapsing condition, and when people relapse we need to keep them alive.
The Sun’s series highlighted the need for a more integrated system of addiction treatment in B.C., which is a government priority. Caregivers and health agencies are working hard to dramatically expand treatment and recovery programs, and we’re supporting initiatives across B.C.:
- Seven Foundry centres now offer health care, mental health and addictions support and social services support to youth aged 12 to 24, all under one roof. Four more Foundry centres are underway.
- New guidelines have expanded opioid agonist treatment — now helping more than 29,000 people on their road to recovery, 30% more than last year.
- A groundbreaking new model at Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital HUB offers wraparound care. People move from urgent treatment of mental health and substance use issues, to a short-stay facility that connects them to community care and social supports, to outpatient medical support and treatment.
- And our government is investing in new treatment and recovery facilities, supportive housing and intensive counselling programs – with a special emphasis on young people, where early intervention can make the biggest difference.
Close collaboration with First Nations and Indigenous communities is especially vital. This crisis has hit them especially hard, and we are working as partners to support responses grounded in Indigenous culture and traditional practices. Last week, we signed a historic agreement between Canada, B.C. and the First Nations Health Council to develop a plan to improve and expand First Nations treatment and recovery centres, and work in partnership to improve mental health and wellness.
That all gives me great hope that we’ll achieve our vision of seamless, integrated mental health and addictions services in every community, where you ask once and get the help you need.
None of us is under the illusion that this will be easy, or that one single solution will end a crisis this large and complex. There are many causes of addiction, and many different pathways to hope. Police and health officials alike say we won’t arrest our way out of this crisis. An unprecedented crisis requires unprecedented action.
I can see promising signs, especially in combating shame and stigma. People are transforming the way they talk and think about addiction and those living with it. Partners, from the Vancouver Canucks and BC Lions to dedicated individual volunteers, are helping to change the conversation around mental health and addictions.
Between public education campaigns, unprecedented community partnerships, compassionate journalism and the open-heartedness of British Columbians, that progress gives me hope. I believe there is both the political will and the public support to turn the tide on this deadly emergency and help bring those under its shadow back into the light.