A crisis of epic proportions is unfolding in Waterloo Region

February 28, 2019 / By: Nancy Harper, United Way WRC Editorial Content Creator

If there was ever any doubt that the opioid crisis is real, consider that in January alone, local police responded to 75 suspected opioid overdoses and 10 deaths — the highest number ever reported in one month. Many of the people already doing the heavy lifting on the frontlines of this crisis are United Way partners, and as a fundraising organization with a mandate to listen, encourage dialogue and ultimately channel funds to the right experts at the right time for maximum impact, United Way is uniquely positioned to play a key role. But as many of those involved in combatting the issue are discovering, it’s something the entire community will need to rally around in order effect real change.

One month, 10 deaths,
75 overdoses

The basketball net in the driveway is one of a thousand little things that had once brought them so much joy. Now it was just another stark reminder of unbearable loss.

Nearly six years have passed since Christine Padaric’s 17-year-old son Austin died of a morphine overdose at a party in Elmira. They’ve since packed up the family home in Heidelberg and moved back to Waterloo to make a fresh start, the basketball net and everything around it simply too painful to keep looking at every day.

The memories linger, of course. Austin will forever be the beloved teenager with a ton of friends and a heart of gold. The boy who loved to skateboard. The hockey player and snowboarder. The one who always looked out for the little guy.

“Austin was a sweetheart,” Padaric says. “He was an easygoing, funny, good-looking, athletic young guy who was a risk taker. He had a lot of friends and knew a lot of people and was just really known as the kid who would give you the shirt off his back if you wanted it. He gravitated toward people who looked like they needed help. He would sit with them, chat with them, introduce them to other people. He made them feel better. He had a heart of gold.”

The night of the overdose, Austin and a handful of other young people crushed and snorted morphine pills at that Elmira party. When Austin became distressed and started vomiting, they put him in a cold bathtub, hoping he’d sleep it off. By the time an ambulance was sent for at 10.30 the next morning, it was too late.

Padaric gets that there is widespread shame and stigma surrounding opioid-related overdoses and deaths. But her story is different. Austin wasn’t an addict. And she believes that if the others who were doing drugs that night hadn’t been afraid to call 9-1-1, her son would be alive today.

“I’m not shy to admit that Austin smoked a lot of pot,” she says. “But I believe he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I believe it was peer pressure and a one-time deal that turned out very, very bad.”

After her tragic loss, Padaric threw herself into learning as much as she could and educating others about opioids and other drugs. Six years later she’s still talking, although it’s not always easy to get an audience willing to listen. Parents — and by extension schools — are often reluctant to hear what she’s got to say.

“If it could happen to my family, it could happen to anyone,” Padaric says. “They say the ambulances are going out to the suburbs and the nice homes just as frequently as they’re going to the downtown core. Overdose and drug use do not discriminate. You can’t profile someone. It’s everywhere.

“You cannot be naïve and assume your child would never try something. It goes back to education and having those important talks with your kids, getting a sense of who they are, what their values are, what they stand for, their openness to talk to you, to tell you what’s going on and who their friends are.

“Drugs are easy to get and easy to buy on the street. You can buy anything you want anywhere. And today there’s the additional issue of wondering if the drug is really what they say it is. In our family we talked about drugs a lot, but I don’t know how much we talked about prescription medication. We’ve got to give the kids power of knowledge. If we do that, they’re that much more capable of making wise decisions. Without that knowledge it’s just a gamble. That’s all we can do: we can educate them.”

The opioid crisis, as Padaric sees it, is represented by two very different groups of people. The first is comprised of those who are prescribed opioids for pain management — people who may struggle to come off their meds but are cut off by their doctor and start looking for it elsewhere to feed their addiction. The second is made up of those who have turned to drugs as a lifestyle and as a way to cover up pain from trauma or anxiety.

Stigma and shame

According to Region of Waterloo Harm Reduction Manager Grace Bermingham, the region has seen a dramatic increase in the use of opioids. Since 2003, the number of opioid-related deaths has increased by 94 percent, and in January alone, local police responded to 75 suspected opioid overdoses and 10 deaths — the highest number ever reported in one month.

But Bermingham believes the common perception of “overdose victim” simply isn’t correct.

“People who overdose are often portrayed as people on the margins of society — maybe homeless, maybe with a mental illness,” she says. “Because there are misperceptions that people who use drugs are making a choice or that they should be able to stop whenever they want, there’s a lot of stigma and shame associated with addiction. It’s those pieces that I think prevent us from being able to allow people to identify that they need help.”

As someone on the frontlines of the issue locally, Bermingham has been deeply involved in studying the complex reasons behind drug use. She believes misinformation is a huge part of the problem.

“This issue is affecting people across the socioeconomic demographic,” she says. “Overdoses can happen to anyone: people who have been using drugs for a long time, a youth who’s using drugs for the first time, people who have been in rehabilitation and then go back to using after a period of abstinence.”

Which begs the question: If the issue cuts across every demographic, why aren’t people talking about it?

“I think stigma is the No. 1 reason,” Bermingham says. “There’s a lot of shame in being addicted, and with that shame comes an unwillingness to speak with loved ones and health-care providers. There’s a lack of understanding about what drug use is and why it happens. It’s very complicated. There’s a fear in being identified as someone who uses drugs and being able to openly talk about it.

“We need to reframe this as a public health issue. It’s going to take that to really begin to make some long-term changes. If we are not able to do that and the stigma is perpetuated, all the issues we’re seeing right now will grow and it will be more difficult to make the inroads we need to make a change.”

Dulling the pain

“Most people are using drugs to end the pain that they are feeling, whatever that stems from,” says United Way Senior Director of Community Investment Nancy Bird. “Whatever they start with, at some point if they are in the throes of addiction, they are not the same person anymore and they are choosing whatever is most available, easiest to find, affordable.

“Sometimes we feel we’re a little bit immune to some of these issues in Waterloo Region. We’re not. This is a much bigger issue than people thought because it’s been hidden. This is not a one-agency fix. It’s not a shelter problem. It’s not an addiction-services problem. This really is a community issue.

“We as leaders in the community need to get to the table and find out how are we going to fundamentally work differently together to change the experience for these individuals. We’ve seen as a community that once we start talking about it, it gives more people permission to talk about it.”

Local and regional levels of government are responding, as are community groups and agencies. United Way is not an expert on the opioid crisis itself, but it is an expert fundraiser, and its goal now is to determine how best to use a targeted funding approach to support and elevate the work already being done.

“This crisis is very real,” says United Way Waterloo Region Communities CEO Joan Fisk. “We are trying to lead the conversation to put some more humanity into it. The reality is that opioid abuse is complex. This is a really gritty subject that we don’t want to be ignorable. It’s something that’s so desperate, which is why we’re trying to partner with people who understand the problem and to work with the community to support people who are going through it.”

In her role overseeing how funding is distributed — including almost $60,000 raised in recent months specifically to fight the opioid crisis — Bird focuses on careful stewardship of donor dollars.

“United Way doesn’t pretend to have all the answers,” she says. “We give out a significant amount of money but we’re just part of the puzzle. Understanding how that part fits with the rest of the puzzle is really important.”

United Way, she adds, is open to new initiatives through new and existing partners.

“It’s not just staff who make decisions about where funding is going to go. Community volunteers help us do the review process. That way, we have more eyes on it and it’s not just what our staff think is important. There’s not just one agency that can address an issue. It really is that collective network of support that United Way is funding. Wherever the money is going to be best used is where we want to see it go.”

Learning from tragedy

Six years after her own heartbreaking loss, Christine Padaric is still working to make sure some good comes from her family’s tragedy.

While dedicating her time to support groups and education initiatives, she was also instrumental in getting what’s known as the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act (Bill C-224) passed into law. Bill C-224 essentially means that anyone who calls 9-1-1 in an overdose situation will be immune from prosecution.

Padaric would like to see a more intentional push to educating young people before they get into their 20s and 30s when, she says, it’s simply too late.

“I don’t see anything going toward education,” she says. “It’s a struggle to get into schools because there’s just no funding. Parents need to push for it. We’ve got to get to the kids when they’re young. I believe in educating kids when they’re open to hearing about it. It still shocks me how many people don’t know the Good Samaritan Act exists and are still afraid to call.”

Community-wide acceptance of safe injection sites is also on her wish list, although she acknowledges that’s a tougher sell for parents and the wider community.

“It’s a safe place that would prevent deaths,” she says. “It would eliminate needles in the parks and schoolyards. People are really afraid of safe injection sites. But addiction needs to be looked at as a disease. You would never prevent anyone else with any other medical issue from service. So why are people with addictions treated differently?”

She also wants people to know what to do when someone is overdosing.

“You need to be able to recognize it for what it is and know what to do,” she says. “In Austin’s situation there were seven people who sat around and watched Austin and hoped and prayed he would sleep it off. That’s a fallacy. It’s not something you sleep off. They were afraid to call 9-1-1. They were under the influence themselves. There were so many factors. But if you make that decision beforehand — that you’re going to do the right thing — you’re more likely to do it.”

Cause for optimism

According to Bermingham, there is reason to hope. She points to the parallels in how society once treated mental health, and how change was a long time coming. “It took a lot of work to have people talk about mental illness as a health issue,” Bermingham says.

“This is not an ‘us versus them’ issue. This crisis has been incredibly painful for many people who’ve been touched by it either personally or through a loved one. People have experienced a lot of loss and trauma.

“But what I’m also seeing in our community is some great cross-sector planning — collaboration that has been strengthened between public health, housing, policing, paramedic services, school boards, municipalities — and I think this is incredibly optimistic. Waterloo Region has always been good at collaborative planning and developing strategies that cut across those sectors. Through this work, our community has really rallied.”

How you can help

It’s been a little more than a year since Grace Bermingham and Christine Padaric participated in a United Way-led community conversation about the shame and stigma surrounding opioid-related overdoses and deaths. At the event’s conclusion, United Way CEO Joan Fisk announced a commitment to raise $50,000 for an opioid fund to help address this issue.

Since then, the goal has been surpassed, thanks in part to a generous outpouring during the Giving Tuesday campaign that created an initial investment of almost $60,000. Investing further in this opioid fund will help support United Way-funded programs and services that find ways to tackle the crisis, and most importantly, save lives.

The Truth About Opioids

What are opioids?
Opioids are a group of pain-relieving drugs. They include morphine, which can be made from the poppy plant, and fentanyl, which is synthesized in a lab.

How do they work?
Opioid medications travel through the blood, attaching to opioid receptors in brain cells, muffling the perception of pain and boosting feelings of pleasure.

Why are they a problem?
When prescribed by a doctor, opioids help control acute pain — but what makes them an effective pain reliever can also make them dangerous. The feeling of pleasure that comes from taking them can lead to addiction. And higher doses can slow breathing and heart rate, which can ultimately be fatal.

Why is there a crisis?
Ontario is seeing a staggering number of overdoses, and the picture in Waterloo Region reflects what’s happening across Canada: an alarming rise in addiction and in the number of overdoses and fatalities

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