Last week I met Don, a carpenter who became addicted to painkillers after an injury he got on the job. He ended up on the streets, and says he was in and out of the hospital about 100 times over a period of four years.
I met Kyle, who had a turbulent childhood and became addicted to drugs when he was very young. He used to steal so he could buy drugs, and spent years in and out of jail. Kyle is a different person now. Since starting opioid substitution treatment, he found a job, has a home and is going back to school.
For both men, the services they were fortunate enough to access at Crosstown Clinic helped them completely turn their lives around, and have protected them from the grave risks facing anyone using street drugs. But both have lost friends, who did not have the same supports, to overdoses.
We are in the most serious public-health emergency this province has faced in decades. There is no limit to the suffering it has caused, with more than 1,600 families coping with the death of a loved one from overdoses since January 2016.
Too often, we hear about its devastating toll in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – but the crisis affects people in every area of the province, from every type of family. It affects people living with poverty and homelessness, those in suburban families and in rural communities, people who use drugs occasionally and those who are addicted.
As the new Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, my first priority is to save lives immediately in the face of the overdose crisis. To get there and to build solutions, I am getting out and talking to people on the front lines of the crisis. I want to hear what’s working and what more is needed.
I spent some of my first week in the Downtown Eastside and Surrey, and plan to visit other areas of the province in the coming weeks. I have heard deeply personal stories from everyday people struggling with addiction.
It is for those like Don and Kyle, and so many others, that we need to build a more seamless, continuous system for mental health and addictions.
I also had the privilege of meeting with first responders, health providers, staff and volunteers working in community agencies on the frontlines of this crisis. They give their heart and soul every day to improve services and save lives – and they have saved countless lives. For that, I thank them.
We know the system overall is fragmented and unco-ordinated, and people wait far too long for the treatment they need.
If you break your leg, you know where to go to get the help you need quickly. However, we don't have that same system if you are suffering from mental-health issues or addictions – even though hundreds of thousands of British Columbians are suffering from such illnesses. We need a more effective system that focuses on prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery – a system where you ask for help once and get help fast.
We need to look at underlying issues like stigma, poverty, homelessness and housing, and work with First Nations leaders on the unique issues faced by Indigenous people who are so disproportionately affected by the overdose crisis.
We are working closely and collaboratively with partners and stakeholders, provincial ministries and all levels of government on both immediate and longer-term solutions. We have many more lives we need to save.