New program aims to teach high school students how to respond to an opioid overdose

The Advanced Coronary Treatment (ACT) Foundation, which provides CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) training in more than 1,800 Canadian high schools, is now offering a opioids overdose response training program, which it hopes to rollout in high schools across the country.

ACT Foundation hopes to add the program to existing CPR, defibrillator training

Students will be trained to administer nasal naloxone spray which experts say does not pose any serious risk to the person who administers or receives a dose. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

Conversations about alcohol-use happened frequently at Alexandra Ewanyshyn's Calgary high school. 

They had guest speakers, open dialogues and received advice like, 'drink lots of water', 'make sure to eat dinner', 'don't get behind the wheel of a car'. 

Now a University of Calgary student, Ewanyshyn looks back on those days and wonders if similar conversations about opioids and drug use might have helped her friend Liam, who she said passed away after an overdose in 2019.

"His passing was something that I felt very unequipped knowledge-wise to understand," she said.

"I had really no knowledge in high school about substance use … and what addiction looks like, especially in youth or in one of my peers."

Because of her experience, Ewanyshyn is supportive of a push by the Advanced Coronary Treatment (ACT) Foundation to add more education on drug use to Canadian high schools.

The organization already provides CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) training in more than 1,800 high schools across the country.

Now, the ACT Foundation has launched a new program — 'opioids overdose response training' — which they hope to provide as an add-on to their existing training and rollout in the fall. 

The training is provided to teachers first, with the idea being they'll pass on the knowledge to their students. It will go over what opioids are, how to recognize the signs of an overdose and how to use nasal naloxone, a drug that temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid poisoning or overdose. 

The ACT Foundation has already run a pilot program at four high schools in Ottawa.

ACT Foundation executive director Sandra Clarke said they're offering the program to high schools across Canada following a successful pilot program in Ottawa. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"The majority of students said that after learning how to use naloxone nasal spray, that they felt that they could use it in an emergency if it was available," said executive director of the ACT Foundation, Sandra Clarke, in an interview on Alberta at Noon.

"Training in how to use naloxone spray is just adding another lifesaving skill ... so it's really about empowerment."

So far, neither the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) nor the Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) has signed on to receive the free training. 

A representative from the CBE said they look forward to speaking with the ACT Foundation about the program. Another with the CCSD said future health and safety programming may include opioid training.

To fill the gap, Ewanyshyn and two of her peers have already started their own platform called The Liam Project — a social-media based initiative created in their friend's memory. 

It aims to destigmatize substance use and encourage safer practices, focusing its messages on young adults.

"Learning about harm reduction was a means of coping with my grief and trying to understand it better and that translated into a desire to make positive change," Ewanyshyn said.

"The uncomfortable truth is that teenagers use drugs … but because of stigma and shame, they'll perhaps hide their use and thus increase their levels for harm."

Overdoses and deaths growing

Alberta alone reported 1,758 fatal drug overdoses last year.

Young Canadians aged 15 to 24 make up the fastest-growing population requiring hospital care from opioid overdoses.

From January to August in 2021, 6,447 overdoses were reversed by naloxone kits, according to Alberta Health. (Natalie Valleau/CBC)

Patrick Black has used naloxone hundreds of times to try to reverse overdoses. He's a nurse and overdose prevention lead with Boyle Street Community Services, which supports people experiencing homelessness and poverty in Alberta. 

"What we're seeing in a lot of the substances these days, very small amounts can cause an overdose quite quickly," he said.

Black added that now couldn't be a better time to provide opioid overdose response training to high school students, so young people are prepared for an emergency. 

"It's just preparing young adults for the real world and trying to make them as successful as they can be with facing real life situations," he said.

Should high school students be trained to use Naloxone?

And for those parents who may think carrying naloxone enables drug use, Black said, in his experience, it doesn't work like that.

"Honestly, I've never met a single person that thought it would be a great idea to start using substances just because there's a naloxone kit laying around."

Accessing naloxone 

One barrier to using the kits may be accessing them, according to Dr. Bonnie Larson, a family physician in Calgary who leads a group called Street CCRED, which works to reduce the stigma around addiction.

Although the province offers free injectable naloxone kits at some pharmacies and community sites, the nasal spray isn't widely available. That's the version the ACT Foundation will be demonstrating how to use in their training.

If students do want to keep injectable kits with them, pharmacies will offer some basic training on-site, Dr. Larson said.

"It's actually a bit intimidating for people who've never handled a needle or a syringe before, but this is not complicated."

The good news is that administering naloxone to someone who's not experiencing an overdose won't hurt them, she said.

Naloxone kits are available at some pharmacies and community sites in Alberta. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Overall, Dr. Larson is a fan of the training and wants to see it added to high school programming immediately. Her hope is for it to include perspectives from people with lived experience. 

"There are thousands around who can tell their stories of actually having had a drug poisoning event and what that was like for them," she said.

"We all are unfortunately going to need to do more than before to care for and protect each other."

Ewanshyn is doing her part, protecting her peers through her advocacy. 

Her hope is that these kinds of conversations will be normalized, so in the future, young people are better prepared to act in an emergency or even just speak with a friend.

"I think it would have also helped me understand how I could have been more supportive or understanding simply by just having a discussion about drugs."

With files from Heather Moriarty, Judy Aldous, Dave Waddell