Why opioid overdoses aren't getting enough attention: Angus Reid report

The opioid crisis is an issue happening in the homes of Waterloo region and doesn't just affect people on the streets. A new national survey shows many Canadians know opioid addictions is a national and provincial issue, but they don't recognize it as a problem in their community.

Some seek out opioids on the black market for 'legitimate' needs like pain relief

Waterloo Regional Police have seized suspected fentanyl, worth about $450,000, during just one raid in 2017. (WRPS)

The opioid crisis is in the homes of your neighbours right here in Waterloo region. 

A new national survey shows Canadians seem to understand the opioid crisis is a national and provincial issue — but they don't necessarily think it's happening in their own community or if they do, they think it's only certain parts of the population. 

However, the problem isn't only in the downtown areas like people might think.

"We do know that Waterloo Regional Police and our paramedic services have responded to a portion of overdoses in private residences across Waterloo region," said Lindsay Sprague, coordinator of the Waterloo Region Integrated Drugs Strategy.

"There are also overdoses happening in our residential areas as well and this puts people at a high risk because they could be alone in their residence when using substances."

Results from the Angus Reid report show Canadians are less likely to consider opioid use a crisis or a serious problem in their communities. (Angus Reid Institute )

'Legitimate' pain relief

The Angus Reid poll, released Thursday, found 71 per cent agreed with the statement that said "if this many people were dying of a disease like Ebola or the Zika virus instead of drugs like fentanyl, the problem would be getting way more attention than it is."

Ian Holliday, a research associate with Angus Reid and the lead author of the report, said there's a stigma associated with drug use and drug users.

When many Canadians look at the issue of opioid addiction, they immediately think of those using illegal substances, said Holliday, when "street-level use" is only "one component of the crisis."

In much of Canada and U.S., "a lot of the issue that really is the meat of the opioid crisis is actually the idea that doctors are over-reliant on opioid painkillers and over-prescribing them," he said.

A percentage of the people who get prescribed opioids then become addicted to the highly addictive substances, and then they may turn to the black market, he said.

"It's actually a legitimate reason, a need for pain relief, that is causing this epidemic on one level," he said. "We have a tendency not to think of it coming from that direction."

Hydromorphone prescribing is up across the country, likely replacing prescriptions for Oxycodone, another addictive opioid pictured in this file photo. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

Personal connections to opioids

That's surprising, he said, because the online poll — conducted Nov. 14 to 20 of 1,510 randomly selected adults who are members of the Angus Reid Forum — also found one in eight Canadians surveyed have close family or friends who have become dependent on opioids in the last five years.

Also, 19 per cent said they themselves had been prescribed opioids in the last five years.

"These personal connections to opioids and opioid addiction are not limited by age, gender or social standing," Holliday's report said.

"Canadians of all income brackets and education levels are roughly equally like to have been prescribed these drugs, and to have a close friend or family member who has been addicted to them."

Canadians were also willing to say it's a national and provincial issue, but weren't sure it was happening in their own communities, he said. It seems to be something happening elsewhere, but not at home.

Addiction impacts 'all of us'

No matter where people live in Canada, they are equally likely to say they know someone who has been affected by this crisis, the survey found.

"Yet, when they look out their window in the evening, they don't feel like they're in a place that has really been rocked by this issue in the way the downtown east side of Vancouver sort of conjures to mind, being the epicentre of a problem like this," Holliday said.

While the number of overdoses in people's communities might be much lower than the high ones in metro Vancouver, he said it doesn't mean it isn't a serious issue affecting the lives of their friends, family and neighbours.

"Our community has done a good job at recognizing that we do have issues," Sprague said.

While the residents of Waterloo region do seem to understand there is a crisis in their backyard, she added, we all need to do more to recognize that addiction and substance use affect a variety of different communities.

"It's all of us across the community who can be impacted."