Eighty per cent of people who died from an illicit substance overdose in the Fraser Health area had received care in the emergency department at least once in the 12 months before their death, says a health authority report released on Monday.

Previous visits were not just for illicit drug overdose — most sought care for injury, trauma, back pain, alcohol overdose or mental health.

Close to 2,000 British Columbians have died of illicit drug overdoses since a public health emergency was declared two years ago.

The Fraser Health region has one of the highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths in the province.

Dr. Victoria Lee, chief medical health officer for Fraser Health and author of the new report, said the research highlights a critical issue of self-medication.

"People that are using substances are self-medicating whether it's because of pain that's physical or emotional or underlying trauma," she said. "They feel isolated, they don't feel like they are part of our broader society or community."

One of the goals of the report is to have a better understanding of the factors leading to illicit substance abuse and to help identify those at risk of an overdose, Lee told CBC host of On The Coast Gloria Macarenko.

Profile of an overdose

The report examined approximately 45,000 visits to emergency rooms and 5,000 patients to learn more about the fatal and non-fatal overdoses in the region.  

In the Fraser Health region, 85 per cent of the deaths were male, with 30- to 39-year-olds having the highest number of overdose deaths.

A disproportionate number of men who overdose were currently or formerly employed in trade industries, Lee added.  

Despite the prevalence of overdose deaths in media headlines and within policy discussions, Lee said the issue remains a hidden epidemic in many ways.

"Unlike what most people think of, 70 per cent of people are actually dying in private residences or at their homes," Lee said. "A lot of what is happening is actually hidden from what we normally see or think of in terms of opioid epidemic."

She said that combating the stigma of substance abuse is critical to encouraging people to seek help. 

With files from On The Coast.