Amid Alberta’s opioid poisoning crisis, Canada has created mental health and addictions ministry – and some experts weigh in on what’s needed.
Carolyn Bennett was appointed the minister of mental health and addictions on October 26, 2021. The ministry plans to have negotiations with provinces and territories that have demanded the federal government take on a greater share of the cost of delivering accessible healthcare.
Meanwhile, Alberta is on track to see its deadliest year for opioid deaths ever.
Jennifer Jackson, a registered nurse specializing in substance abuse, said the new ministry is needed to have a national-level conversation about the overdose crisis.
“There are opportunities in terms of legislation that they could change that could have a positive output for this situation,” she said.
Jackson promoted the importance of having a community working towards the same goal.
“We need to expand supervised consumption services and make them more available,” Jackson said. “It’s not a long-term solution, but like community-based mental health services, it’s something we need immediately.”
Last year, one of the busiest supervised consumption services in Canada closed. Known as ARCHES, the Lethbridge organization lost funding – and many, including Jackson, are calling for the site’s reopening.
Jackson then said that COVID-19 has greatly influenced the soaring overdose rates across the province.
“I think people can relate to the idea that the pandemic has increased stress for everyone,” she said. “If somebody’s already struggling to manage, then that extra stress makes it even more difficult – ultimately leading to more overdoses.”
Rebecca Saah, a health sociologist from the University of Calgary, said it’s also important to change the conversation and some of the nomenclature being used in the community.
“One of my pieces of advice is to start using substance use as opposed to abuse,” she said. “We talk about elder abuse, animal abuse, and child abuse – but people using substances are not morally guilty.”
Alberta Health Services said that two key strategies for addressing harmful, high-risk substance use include reducing stigma and harm reduction.
Saah also said that although they might seem closely interlinked, she separates mental health from the overdose crisis.
“As a public health scientist, I look at this the same way I would look at baby formula or lettuce, or any other substance that people are consuming that’s leading to their illness or death,” she said.
“It’s what’s in the supply and the fact that the drugs are unregulated that’s killing folks – not their pre-existing or underlying conditions.”
It’s not a long-term solution, but like community-based mental health services, it’s something we need immediately. – Jennifer Jackson
The Government of Canada said that almost four million Canadians aged 15 years and older reported that they used at least one illegal substance in the past year.
“It takes people a lot of first-hand experience until they can fully understand that making drugs illegal and policing people alone won’t solve anything,” said Saah.
“We have to keep meeting people where they’re at and help move them away from their addictions.”