COVID-19: The current health issue that depends on isolation to flatten the curve
by Steven Hall
As the provincial number of new cases of COVID-19 decrease, the number of illicit drugs related deaths increase, currently at a rate of 3.2 deaths per day. The Downtown East Side is a notorious hot spot when it comes to social and health issues that place pressure on law enforcement, emergency responders, business owners and the community as a whole. Where is the release valve? How do we gauge hope? These questions have plagued city planners for years. Answers can be found when we take the time to open discourse with the frontline workers, social service organizations and healthcare professionals. It takes a community of forward thinkers, risk takers and compassionate hearts to break through the dark cloud hanging over the lives of scores of men and women who call Hastings home. The light of hope can shine as we take the time to see the person and look past the addiction and mental health.
As an abstinence-based recovery centre operating in Vancouver for 26 years, the staff, peer volunteers and alumni of Together We Can Drug & Alcohol Recovery & Education Society have been holding space for solution focused discussions that can help foster a community of unity, empathy and recovery. Focusing primarily on men’s treatment, the organization can see the positive impact of one addict helping another when it comes to creating a safe place for men to become vulnerable and realize the strength in numbers. A place where we no longer have to hide in tents poorly erected in public parks. We can emerge from the back alleys and see a glimmer of light in the distance. We can wake up in a bed instead of the back of an ambulance. We can celebrate each other’s triumphs instead of attending another funeral. We can see mothers and fathers shed tears of joy at a graduation instead of crying out in pain and misery alone in their living rooms. Physical distancing is a must right now, but do we have to continue subjecting these men to social isolation? No. We have the tools and supports available, waiting with open arms to give these men community and a sense of belonging. We have inspired individuals ready to walk beside the still suffering addict as they take their first steps towards becoming productive members of the society that they have burdened for so many years. These men can get healthy, they can heal. Once they do, they are ready to help the next fellow that is in the grips of dependency. The information bulletin published by the BC Coroners office on May 27, 2020 reports that 76% of the “suspected” overdose deaths from illicit drug use are men aged 19 – 49. Men who lost their purpose, their dignity, self-respect, integrity and now their lives. When an individual comes to treatment, the first thing they are taught is to talk. Talk to their roommates, the support staff, the volunteers, the counsellors, even the bookkeeper if no one else is available or you feel more comfortable. Men are shown that they can feel emotion, it’s not weak to say I’m not okay. 95% of the 60 staff members at Together We Can are in recovery themselves and have been through residential treatment. Why does this matter? Fueled by drug and alcohol addiction, we can feel the sorrow, guilt, shame, confusion, apprehension and degradation of addiction that each individual comes in with. We can look past the story and see the person. We can break down barriers and show others that there is a new life waiting. We are all examples that connection has saved our lives.
“Watching a man come from the streets, timid and shaking, gain a sparkle in their eye and experience their first gut laugh is what keeps our organization moving. It is what motivates us and makes our community the first home most of these men have ever had” says Stacy Wilson, Executive Director of Together We Can. “Seeing these men become the sons, brothers, husbands and leaders that they were meant to be is what brings me to work every day. I get to watch and converse with men as they emerge from their shells and tap into the potential that has been inside the entire time. A potential that has been gagged by drugs and alcohol for so many years. Abstinence based alcohol and drug rehabilitation is the key to success. Abstinence allows the resident to become clear headed and able-bodied.”
Overall, deaths have increased by 61% in one month (February 2020 VS March 2020). Is this primarily a Vancouver problem? Again, no. This is a provincial health emergency, an epidemic. The BC Coroners Service reports that Northern Health has the highest number of deaths, followed by Vancouver. Small communities that are not equipped to deal with a dirty supply, criminal activity, violence or the overflow of case files piling up on the desks of A&D Counsellors in the tiny Mental Health and Substance Use offices. Case files that represent another person who has reached out for help but cannot find it. Another man or woman who is in the grips of an obsession so strong, that they will risk death to quiet the voice in their heads for even five minutes. A voice so loud that they walk away from their families and children, blind to seeing the torture in their loved one’s eyes and hearts. It is not one-person, governing body or social service organizations at fault. We can blame the stigma associated with substance dependency. We can blame the societal norm that it is easier to shine the light on one community instead of looking in our own back yard. It is the burn out and compassion fatigue of the over worked front-line workers. The first six points on the BC Coroners report reflect isolation, the last point reflects that with preventive measures and intervention, we can keep people alive. We can guide these individuals into recovery and show them that they are not a waste. That they are not alone.
How can you help? Reach out to your local MP or MLA and let them know that want to see a solution to our growing substance misuse crisis. Let them know that you are witness to the carnage on our streets and you want to see a solution.
Find your MLA – https://www.leg.bc.ca/learn-about-us/members
Find your MP – https://www.ourcommons.ca/members/en
Honourable Judy Darcy, Ministry of Mental Health & Addictions – Vancouver: 604-660-2421
I end this piece, so I can reach out to the third mother in eight weeks who has lost their son. To let her know that even though we cannot hold a memorial at this time, we are in her corner. As memories of her sons first steps, first school dance, and first love are overshadowed by imaginations of his final breath and images of him lying in a cold, steel room, she has a community of love and support waiting for her.
Steven, an alumnus of the Awakenings Program, does Community Outreach for Together We Can. Coming from a management and sales background, his experience allows him to excel at coordinating, planning and executing his various tasks and handling important issues whenever they arise. He previously worked for the Interior Crisis Line Network and is partially through a Social Service Worker program. He prides himself on always being empathetic, compassionate and understanding – which allows him to bring unmatched sympathy to the table, whilst consistently remaining professional. Steven has been in Vancouver for nearly two years and originally hails from Fruitvale. Steven is in long-term recovery and is active in the 12-step fellowship community. In his spare time, Steven loves cooking and enjoying the beautiful outdoors on offer in British Columbia.