Families affected by opioid crisis need more support, Alberta prof says

Grieving parents are filling a gap in Canada’s health care system, according to Rebecca Saah, a professor at the University of Calgary’s O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Health experts, families to discuss treatment gaps at Edmonton drug policy conference

Rebecca Haines-Saah, left, and Leslie McBain talked about an upcoming panel discussion on supporting families affected by the opioid crisis on CBC's Radio Active on Wednesday. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Leslie McBain's 25-year-old son, Jordan, died from an opioid overdose in 2014. There's so much that she knows now that she wishes she had known then. 

She wishes she had understood more about addiction, had access to a doctor educated on the topic, received more information on detox programs and support after their completion, as well as counselling and long-term support groups.

"We had none of that," she said Wednesday in an interview with Adrienne Pan on CBC's Radio Active.

Following discussions with other mothers who had similar experiences, McBain helped form the national support and advocacy network Moms Stop the Harm in 2016.

Through that group, family members who have lost loved ones due to substance use have shared stories, supported each other and tried to prevent more opioid-related deaths.

"The primary goal was to not let anyone feel like we felt," McBain said.

Parents like McBain are filling a gap in Canada's health care system, according to Rebecca Haines-Saah, a health sociologist and professor at the University of Calgary's O'Brien Institute for Public Health.

Forty-three mothers from across Canada whose children have died from opioid poisoning and overdose-related causes shared their experiences during a recent research project that involved Moms Stop the Harm.

Haines-Saah said this research revealed mothers were turning to peer groups for supports they couldn't find elsewhere.

"They provide counselling to each other. They provide grief support. In some instances, we have health services referring parents who have lost a child to these groups," Haines-Saah said.

Such groups are often run by volunteers and have no or limited budgets.

Panel discussion happening in Edmonton

McBain and Haines-Saah are both presenting during a panel discussion Thursday night in Edmonton about how communities can support families affected by the opioid crisis.

The panel comes as drug policy experts, drug users and members of harm reduction organizations meet at the Shaw Conference Centre this week for the Stimulus conference on drug policy and practice in Canada.

Thursday's panel, considered a Stimulus satellite event, is also taking place at the Shaw. It's open to the general public and free to attend.

Other presenters on the panel include Petra Schulz of Moms Stop the Harm, Katie Mai of the British Columbia Centre on Substance Abuse and Hakique Virani, a University of Alberta professor.

Lorna Thomas of Moms Stop the Harm will moderate the interactive discussion.

Proposing potential solutions

Through work with the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, McBain has helped organize meetings that bring together family members and share their experiences with health providers. She also helped create a handbook for family members navigating grief related to substance use.

"It's the book I wish I'd had right after Jordan died," McBain said. She is trying to increase the booklet's distribution so it reaches more parents across Canada.

From a policy perspective, Haines-Saah is advocating for three strategies to combat the opioid crisis: decriminalizing simple possession, providing people immediate access to a safe supply of pharmaceutical-grade opioids and rapidly scaling up safe consumption sites.

"We need to treat it as a public health emergency and act quickly," she said.

Alberta Health's records show 733 Albertans died from apparent accidental opioid overdoses last year.

The Stimulus conference began Wednesday and runs through Friday.