Grande Prairie business owners tackle unseen opioid crisis
'You can't have your head in the sand ... it could be, potentially, in your organization'
Business leaders in Grande Prairie are educating themselves about how to help employees struggling in silence with opioid addiction.
Nearly two dozen managers and employers attended a joint presentation by HIV North and the ACT Medical Centre on Wednesday, hosted by the Grande Prairie and District Chamber of Commerce.
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Grande Prairie last year had the highest rate of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the province, with more than 23 deaths per 100,000 people in the first half of 2017, according to data gathered by Alberta Health.
By comparison, about 13 in 100,000 people in Edmonton died of accidental overdoses involving fentanyl during the same time period.
Nurse practitioner Bonnie Braun, clinic manager at the ACT Medical Centre in Grande Prairie, said roughly half the opioid-addicted clients she works with have homes and jobs.
The centre, which is privately funded and not affiliated with Alberta Health Services, uses synthetic opioids such as methadone and suboxone to treat addictions.
Braun collaborated with outreach organization HIV North to give Wednesday's presentation.
"My big goal was to let the employers of these people know that there is help," Braun told CBC News at the event.
"There's a lot that they can do, because these people are in contact with their employees on a daily basis. They know what their absenteeism is. They know what their sick days are, they know what their production is at work. You can identify risk factors just on those indicators."
Niki Lucas, who owns an alternative medicine business in Grande Prairie, lost her son to a fentanyl overdose in 2016.
Dustin Lucas died at age 27, after a four-year struggle with addiction.
"At the time I was so naive, I did not understand his addiction," his mother said. "I didn't even take the time to research the drug. I have a lot of regrets."
Lucas said she responded to her son's addiction with tough love, in an attempt to shock him out of his drug use.
Looking back, she said, more education about addiction and opioids would have helped her support her son.
To see a room full of fellow business owners and managers on Wednesday take the steps she didn't warmed her heart, Lucas said.
"It's very, very close and dear to my heart," she said.
"As we break down stigma, as education, media, all of that is out there, then it's going to reach these individuals and perhaps they can step through the stigma themselves."
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More than 80 per cent of those who died from fentanyl-related overdoses in Alberta last year were male.
The highest rate of overdose deaths happened in men aged 30 to 34, according to Alberta Health.
Larry Gibson said the majority of his employees fall into the at-risk category, which he learned during Wednesday's presentation.
As people leading other people, you need to be aware of it and you have to have that compassion and knowledge to deal with it.- Larry Gibson, ATCO Electric
As district manager of distribution operations for ATCO Electric in Grande Prairie, Gibson oversees 185 employees. Roughly 70 per cent are men, he said.
"You can't have your head in the sand, you have to be aware of it," Gibson said. "You always have to be aware that it could be, potentially, in your organization.
"As management, as people leading other people, you need to be aware of it and you have to have that compassion and knowledge to deal with it."
Knowing more about fentanyl and other opioids will change how he talks to employees about addiction, he said.
"You always hope it's not happening in your organization, but if you do see extended absenteeism or people that are constantly being sick, maybe there's other issues you need to deal with."