Hamilton shelter workers create group to save young people from opioid addiction

Three Hamilton women have created a group to help educate young people about opioids.

Shelter workers hope Students Overdose Prevention and Education Network (SOPEN) will enter schools in 2022

Kayla Crabtree, Samm Floren and Olivia Mancini started the Students Overdose Prevention and Education Network (SOPEN) to teach youth about the opioid epidemic in Hamilton. They stood alongside Rami Safi, a pharmacist and the professional affairs lead for Hamilton District Pharmacists Association. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Olivia Mancini and Kayla Crabtree have seen 15-year-olds in Hamilton battling drug addiction. Samm Floren has seen local kids as young as 10 starting to use drugs like cannabis or Xanax.

All three women work in city shelters and have formed a group to help educate young people about opioids and overdoses.

"Drugs are accessible to any age. It doesn't just happen to adults, it can happen to anyone," Mancini said.

"It would be important for youth to be educated and informed young adults so they can be more empowering in these situations."

The group is called Students Overdose Prevention and Education Network (SOPEN). Unlike other groups that raise awareness or are centred around not using drugs at all, this group will try to prevent drug use by teaching youth and students.

That would include discussing drugs, how to safely use them, how to use naloxone, the signs of an opioid overdose and stigma, among other subjects.

"I have seen, often enough, parents drop off 18-year-olds as a punishment, say they're smoking too much weed at home … and so kids show up uneducated and uninformed of what drugs look like and all of a sudden they're using crystal meth or something heavier," Crabtree said.

About 12 youth overdoses per month in Hamilton

The city said in an e-mail, over the past six months, there have been an average of 12 suspected overdoses among youth per month.

Paramedics have responded to 530 suspected opioid overdoses, for people of all ages, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 15.

June of this year had 92 paramedic responses to opioid overdoses — the highest number in a month since 2017. In July, there were 75 suspected overdoses and from Aug. 1 to Aug. 15, there have been 45.

In the past two months, there have been two to three calls a day about opioid overdoses.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, said opioids have led to a rise in drug-related emergency department visits, hospitalizations, overdoses and deaths over the past five years.

As of March, 44 deaths are probable or confirmed to be opioid related.​

Richardson said public health and local agencies ensured "ongoing and expanded community naloxone and harm reduction supply distribution" during the pandemic.

She added the city's ​​Van Needle Syringe program has been running at an increased rate, in addition to  offering mental health services for kids, mental health street outreach and services for other addictions.

Rami Safi, a pharmacist and the professional affairs lead for Hamilton District Pharmacists Association, said the city needs more groups like SOPEN.

"Sometimes teenagers don't want to share [drug use] with parents but they end up in the vicious cycle," he said. 

School boards open to hearing about program

Hamilton's public and Catholic school board both said they were open to hearing from SOPEN. Public health said the same.

But Mancini, Crabtree and Floren expect resistance from some parents, similar to the pushback sexual education curriculum in Ontario received in 2015.

Still, the group, which is volunteer-run, plans to establish a nonprofit group and get their program in schools next year.

"We hope people will get behind that, but you never know," Floren said


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