A week doesn’t go by when we don’t hear about the opioid crisis in BC.

The staggering number of overdose deaths — 640 in the first five months of this year — is almost double the number during the same period last year. If the trend continues, it’s estimated that there will be more than 1,400 overdose deaths this year. It’s a sobering number that has never been seen before in the province. The statistics can become numbing, but behind these numbers are individuals — loved by friends and family, each with their own life story.

“If this many people died from swine flu or the Zika virus, more attention and resources would be paid to this issue,” says Scott Bernstein, a senior policy analyst with the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, whose 70 members across Canada advocate for evidence-based drug policies. “We are making some progress in seeing drug use as a public health issue, but there is still a huge stigma in the way people with drug addiction are treated by society.”

Different treatments key to recovery

According to Dr. Bonnie Henry, Deputy Provincial Health Officer of BC, opioid addiction is a complex mental health condition. “We are recognizing how challenging and how individual treatment is,” she says. “People use opioids for a variety of reasons, including physical and emotional pain, and the changes in the brain make it difficult to treat.”

Dr. Henry adds that there is good data that suggests abstinence-only treatment programs are not successful, often leading to relapse and death. During this crisis, there has been a great deal of focus on naloxone as a drug to save lives, and provincial health leaders are learning that methadone and Suboxone are effective treatments which allow people to get control of their lives, and address issues of homelessness, poverty, and their emotional and physical needs. However, in order to prevent people from overdosing in the first place, Suboxone, which is frequently researched, needs to be accepted and put front of mind when diagnosing patients.

“Suboxone is a newer method, and now seen as the first line of treatment,” says Dr. Henry, “We need to ensure more physicians are being trained on the different forms of treatment.”