British Columbia

More help coming for those struggling in Downtown Eastside

As a public health emergency rages in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Vancouver Coastal Health plans to hire several peer support workers — people who have experience struggling with mental health and drug addiction.

Vancouver Coastal Health plans to hire 7 or 8 people who have mental health and addiction experience

Vancouver Coastal Health peer support worker Erika Weikle struggled with mental health issues and drug addiction for the better part of 11 years. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Erika Weikle's childhood was what she'd call regular: she won awards in school and she was on her university's rowing team. But at age 19, things started to go off the rails.

Weikle experienced her first psychotic break and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

"Between 19 and 31, in those 11 years I spent about six years in either hospital or institutions," she said, adding that addiction soon took over her life.

"First of all just experimenting with alcohol and, like, marijuana and it just led to other things and harder drugs. The harder the drug I did, the worse my mental health got and I was just really sick — like really, really sick."

At the end of November, Weikle will mark five years clean and sober. Now, she's a peer support worker helping others going through similar struggles.

On Tuesday Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) announced plans to add seven or eight more workers like Weikle to the Downtown Eastside, all through a contract with RainCity Housing and Support Society.

Overdose crisis

On Monday, staff at Insite, the supervised injection facility in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, attended 28 potentially deadly overdoses — saving the patient in each case.

Twenty-two of the overdoses were inside the facility and six were outside, according to VCH.

Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is the overdose crisis 'ground zero,' but the problem goes much further. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"That is dramatic. Those figures are a multiple of three or four times what I would typically expect to see, even if I'm looking at something like cheque issue day, so that number is a high, high, high number and it's a very concerning number," said Andrew Day, VCH operations director.

Vancouver Police put out a parallel warning on Monday, saying a bad batch of drugs was likely to blame for the 11 overdoses the VPD was aware of.

"With the spike we've seen in overdoses in the neighbourhood, and I think at Insite specifically, what it shows is when you have a public health emergency, such as what we're having now — what we're in the midst of — to respond to that emergency is a response of the whole community," said Day.

New positions

"We need to really rely on a range of people, a range of skills — sometimes it's the formal agencies, sometimes it's the informal agencies, very often it's individuals coming into community who can explain to us what's going on," he said.

Andrew Day, Vancouver Coast Health operations director, says the public health emergency in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside requires more than emergency services — it takes a whole community. (Kamil Karamali/CBC)

Day said the new positions will be unionised, full time equivalent positions, but he wouldn't comment on the cost of the added staff in the Downtown Eastside. VCH already has similar peer support positions elsewhere in Vancouver and various support groups in the neighbourhood already use peer workers.

The new staff will be representative of the neighbourhood's vulnerable population and include Indigenous people, women, and others who have 'lived experience': people who have struggled with addiction and mental health issues, but have reached a degree of stability in their lives.

"When we have people living in the neighbourhood, a part of the neighbourhood, there's a degree of legitimacy that they have," said Day, adding that the peer support workers would be expected to take part in decision making as well as give one-on-one support to people in need.

A pile of needles and sanitary wipes lies on the wet sidewalk on Hastings Street in Vancouver. On Nov. 14, 2016, Insite staff attended 28 overdoses, according to Vancouver Coastal Health. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

'Don't give up on them'

​Weikle credits her success in battling addiction to the network of services she was able to get, and the support she had from other people.

"Having a peer support worker work with you is just kind of seeing that someone else went through the hardest times that you went through and they got better. You know, 'I've been there too, I got through it and so can you,'" she said.

As VCH and RainCity fill the new positions, Weikle will be a key character in the process.

"She brings compassion and she brings unique insight that you can never match, no matter how well intentioned, how many credentials you get, she just brings that unique sense of individual experience to the table," said Day. 

"Erika plays a huge role and she's a great ambassador for what peers can achieve and what any of us personally can achieve."

But Weikle is already setting her sights on the end user of the service.

"We just have to not give up on these people because their mental health teams may be the only only positive connection they have in this world," she said.

"If you have someone that you know in your life that has addiction or mental health challenges, don't give up on them, because you never know if what you're going to say or how you're going to help them — this might just be the time that they get better, so don't give up on them."

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker