They are mostly single men in their 30s and 40s – what otherwise could have been the prime of life. About half lived with mental-health issues, about the same with physical pain. Half of them were employed, many working in the trades.
And when they overdosed and died, they were at home, alone. Fentanyl was in their systems.
The BC Coroners Service on Thursday released a report summarizing two years worth of overdose death investigations, shedding more light on who is dying from illicit drug overdoses in B.C.
The agency began collecting detailed information on these deaths – retroactively interviewing friends and family members of the deceased, reviewing medical records, consulting with partner agencies such as social services and BC Housing – in hopes of preventing similar deaths in the future.
Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said the findings have highlighted some specific areas that health officials can now focus on.
“We don’t want to draw conclusions too quickly, but it gives you some areas to contemplate,” Ms. Lapointe said, citing the the overrepresentation of victims who worked in the trades as an example. “The value that we see is that we now have a high-level view [of the situation], and can now look at some of these specific areas and tease out some of the factors to really address, to hopefully have a reduction in deaths.”
In all, the coroners service reviewed 872 cases from 2016 and 2017. It found that 81 per cent were male, and 79 per cent between the ages of 30 and 49. Sixty-five per cent had never been married and were not in a common-law relationship at the time of death – a figure notably different from the 2016 census, which found that 27 per cent of B.C. adults had never been married.
Forty-four per cent of the overdose victims (49 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women) were employed at the time of their deaths. Among those, 55 per cent had been working in the trades and transport industry, in jobs such as construction, electrical and carpentry.
Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, an umbrella organization for construction unions in the province, said he was taken aback when he first saw similar figures last year.
“You sort of think of the opioid crisis as something that happens in the Downtown Eastside, because that’s what you see,” he said. “But then you start looking at the numbers, and how disproportionate it is to the trades, and then you start having the conversation around my table and hear the business manager say, ‘We had two funerals last month.’ ”
Mr. Sigurdson said it can be challenging to reach out to employees given the precarious and transitory nature of the work. As well, the stigma attached to opioid use can prevent workers from talking about it, he said.
“If you’re in pain and the doctor has prescribed this, you don’t tell anybody,” he said. “And you don’t tell anybody because maybe the supervisor will say, ‘Jeez, you’re on some pretty heavy-duty medication. You can’t go to work.’ And so it’s kept quiet.”
Seventy-nine per cent of the victims had contact with health services in the year preceding their death, and more than half (56 per cent) of those people had contacts for pain-related issues, the study found. It’s not yet known what the outcome of those contacts was – and whether they received treatment or medications, for example – but continuing work in collaboration with the BC Centre of Disease Control is expected to shed some light on that in the near future, Ms. Lapointe said.
Among other findings: About half (52 per cent) were reported to have a clinical diagnosis or anecdotal evidence of a mental-health disorder; 63 per cent died in a private residence; and 76 per cent had fentanyl in their systems. At least 69 per cent consumed their drugs alone.
More than 3,400 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since Jan. 1, 2016.