'Easier to judge than to understand': MRU mental health conference focuses on fentanyl

About 120 participants at Mount Royal University mental health conference in Calgary discuss tools for dealing with addiction and the fentanyl crisis.

Mental health workers and Mount Royal University students share strategies at 2-day addictions conference

A Mount Royal University mental health conference being held in Calgary this week will discuss strategies to tackle the ongoing fentanyl crisis in Alberta, and other addiction issues. (Canadian Press)

The ongoing fentanyl crisis is one of the issues participants are tackling at a mental health conference at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

About 120 students and mental health professionals are meeting over two days to share tools and strategies for dealing with addiction.

"The fentanyl crisis is certainly something that we're talking a lot about, because it's impacting us significantly," said Candace Windisch, who works with Enviros — a non-profit that runs two addiction treatment facilities in Calgary.

"And particularly with the students it's a hot topic. It's the new future that we're facing in terms of addressing addiction and mental health in our communities."

The Alberta government says 343 people died of apparent drug overdoses related to fentanyl last year — up from 257 in 2015.

Calgary has consistently seen more deaths than any other health region, according to a report issued by Alberta Health earlier this year.

It said the Calgary census metropolitan area — which includes Calgary, Airdrie, Black Diamond, Cochrane, High River and Okotoks — had 38 per cent more fentanyl deaths in 2016 than the Edmonton area.

Candace Windisch works with Enviros, a non-profit that runs two addiction treatment facilities in Calgary. (Alison Dempster/CBC)

"I think a really aggressive approach to making sure we get that harm reduction message out there to people is really important," said Windisch.

She says that includes making sure people who are dealing with addictions know how to reduce the risks: by not using alone, by educating people around them about what to look for, and by making sure they've got naloxone, which temporarily blocks the effects of an overdose.

Mental health and fetal alcohol syndrome are also on the conference agenda as students and mental health workers discuss treatment methods ranging from music therapy to therapy dogs.

Chelsea Boudreau, a student in the Mount Royal University child studies program, helped organize the conference. She said she hopes the exchange of ideas helps fight the stigma around addiction.

"People often jump to judgement instead of understanding that maybe something happened to them that they'd can't cope with or they don't know how to," said Boudreau. "It's so much easier to judge than understand."