‘It is everybody’: Increasing number of opioid-related deaths in suburbs, rural areas

CTVNews.ca staff, with a report from Melanie Nagy
Published Tuesday, December 18, 2018 10:00PM EST

A mother. A public works supervisor. A regular community member. A great grandmother.

These are just some of the faces of an opioid crisis that doesn’t discriminate and that affects Canadians from all walks of life.

More than 2,000 Canadians died from an opioid overdose in the first half of 2018, according to data released by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The staggering number brings the total number of opioid-related deaths in the country to 9,000 since 2016.

Although the drug crisis is believed to have started in urban centres, such as Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, the number of deaths and opioid addictions in suburban and rural areas has dramatically increased.

Located about an hour’s drive east of Vancouver, the city of Abbotsford, B.C. is one such community.

The city of approximately 141,000 has seen hundreds of residents receive treatment for addictions to opioids, such as fentanyl.

At the Abbotsford Health Centre, dozens of patients pass through its doors on a daily basis in search of help for opioid addiction.

“Addiction is everywhere,” Joe Silver, a public works supervisor who visits the clinic for his addiction to opioids, told CTV News. “It is professional people… it is not just a rundown guy you see on the streets. It is everybody.”

None of the clinic’s patients live on the street and 75 per cent of them have jobs and families.

Marcia Mercer, another patient, explained how she became hooked on the medication.

“A lot of people take it for the pain,” the great grandmother said. “That is what my thing was… to get something for the pain.”

In addition to pain relief, other visitors to the clinic share how their journey with opioids began with experimentation.

“I come from a middle class family. Lived here in Abbotsford since I was 11,” patient Aaron Hall said. “I started off using marijuana and alcohol, not because I was feeling down or low self-esteem, but just for the experimentation that young people will do.”

For one mother, coming to terms with her addiction has been a daily battle in itself.

“You may look at me and not see an addict, but I look at myself and I see an addict and every day it’s a struggle to not give up,” Karen Jones said.

Patients at the Abbotsford Health Centre receive counselling and access to methadone or suboxone – medications used to treat opioid addictions.

“I am glad I am on methadone because I see that this fentanyl is killing people left, right, and centre,” Hall said.

With opioid use on the rise in smaller cities, experts say access to treatment without shame or fear of stigma is now more important than ever.

“They need support with compassion and no judgement,” addiction specialist Nirmala Raniga said.

In fact, rates of overdose hospitalizations have now more than doubled in smaller cities than those in large urban centres, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

With 10 Canadians dying from opioid-related causes every day, Raniga is calling for the opioid crisis to be declared a national public health emergency.

“This is our country’s problem. This is our communities’ problem,” she said. “We think it is someone else’s story. We all have families. We all have friends. We work with people who struggle.”

By the end of the year, the clinic expects it will have seen nearly 500 patients in the last year. It’s a number the facility predicts will only rise in the coming year.