This time, at least 175 people died. The victims include a soccer goalie who had just celebrated his 26th birthday, a cheerful young volunteer at an overdose prevention site, and a college graduate who aspired to become an addictions worker to help others through their struggles.
June’s illicit drug overdose death toll set yet another B.C. record, surpassing May’s tally by four. “Extreme” fentanyl concentrations were detected in 15 per cent of deaths from April to June, compared with 8 per cent from January, 2019, to March, 2020, according to data released by the BC Coroners Service on Thursday.
At least 5,731 people have died since 2016, the year British Columbia declared a public-health emergency because of overdose deaths.
Four years later, as the crisis continues unabated, those on the front lines say it has become difficult to maintain hope. Efforts to effect change must compete for energy with years of grief and trauma.
“It’s hard seeing so many people die,” said Guy Felicella, a peer clinical adviser at the BC Centre on Substance Use. “I’m heartbroken, I’m devastated. My friends are giving up. I try to put on a brave face. I almost see the hope fading from people. That’s the hardest part to witness. It’s like, does anyone care? Honestly.”
His latest friend to die was Bryan Ferenz, 60, a former oil sands worker from Alberta whom Mr. Felicella would tease for his head-to-toe denim and mullet hairstyle. Mr. Ferenz fatally overdosed May 29 in Vancouver. They had been friends for 22 years.
At the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver, executive director Sarah Blyth said one of their volunteers – a cheerful blond guy in his 20s, who went only by the nickname Kayak – had died in June.
“I feel depressed,” she said. “I just feel numb to people dying. The stories are terrible, one after another.”
Down the street, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users advocacy group met this month for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to large gatherings. The meeting consisted mostly of accounting for members who had died in the previous three months and planning for their memorials.
Garth Mullins, a drug-user activist and host of the Crackdown podcast who attended the meeting, said he tries not to let himself cry over these deaths any more.
“I’m afraid that if I start, that I won’t stop – that I’ll drown in an ocean of tears,” he said. “That I’ll sink to the bottom, no air, no light, and be crushed by the pressure. We’ve just been surrounded by death for too long.”
Moms Stop the Harm, a national support and advocacy network for people who have lost loved ones to overdoses, has seen a “sharp” increase in new members in recent weeks, said Petra Schulz, one of its founding directors.
Among them is Jenn White, whose adult daughter died in June.
Dixie White had grappled with addiction for 18 of her 34 years but had achieved periods of recovery. She went back to school in Vancouver and earned a certificate in addiction counselling and community work, in hopes of helping others navigate the darkness that she had lived through herself.
Jenn White worried about the deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply, but took some comfort in knowing that her daughter had in recent years stabilized on a prescription medication. She suspects that a recent back injury may have driven her daughter to use again, resulting in her fatal overdose.
“I was shocked when it happened,” Ms. White said in an interview from Kelowna, B.C. “I didn’t think she was doing street drugs. But that is addiction and relapse.”
Morgan Goodridge grew up on Vancouver Island, an athletic child who played lacrosse, ran cross-country and was on the swim team. His passion for soccer drew him to a soccer academy in high school.
Mr. Goodridge’s mother, Kathleen Radu, said he chose recovery as soon as he realized his recreational drug use had become problematic. The family supported him, spending some $80,000 on treatment in the past two years. Her son relapsed several times but had been the best they had seen him in recent months. He bought his first car in April, and a new camera to practise photography.
Mr. Goodridge died on June 16, a week after his 26th birthday.
Ms. Radu, another new member of the mothers’ advocacy group, now focuses her efforts on the need for safer alternatives to toxic, illicit drugs.
“Because Morgan didn’t believe he was an addict, because he was so ashamed of it, he wouldn’t have gone to a safe injection site,” Ms. Radu said. “But if he had access to a safe supply, and services to support that, there would have been a greater chance of him bridging that relapse back into recovery without having to die.”
Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director at the BCCSU, said Thursday that government must invest in a public-health approach to substance use that promotes the health and equity of people who use drugs.
“This must include not only decriminalization, but also pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply,” Dr. Kendall said in a statement. “Alongside investments in an evidence-based substance-use system of care to support recovery, treatment and harm reduction, these are the critical steps needed to finally end this emergency.”
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