'It can happen to anybody,' says Kitchener mom ahead of Overdose Awareness Day
Kathy Moreland's son, Austin, died of drug poisoning in the summer of 2020
On this International Overdose Awareness Day, Kathy Moreland has a message about drug addiction and overdose.
"It can happen to anybody," says the 61-year-old registered nurse from Kitchener, Ont.
Moreland's adopted son, Austin Layte, had just celebrated his 18th birthday when he died of drug poisoning in June 2020.
Growing up, Layte was a joyful kid who loved art, math and sports, but struggled with impulse control and was later diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). It can be diagnosed in someone whose mother drank during pregnancy, and those with FASD can experience physical, behaviour and learning problems.
In his teenage years, Layte became addicted to crystal meth — and later, fentanyl — after turning to drugs as a way to connect with friends and escape the persistent anxiety caused by FASD, Moreland said.
On June 23, 2020, Layte and his girlfriend, Alex Kraemer, celebrated his high school graduation by using fentanyl. The next morning, Layte was found unresponsive and rushed to the intensive-care unit (ICU).
Layte died June 25. His girlfriend died two weeks later, also from a suspected overdose.
"They were both vibrant, lovely, funny, artistic kids who struggled with mental health issues their whole lives," Moreland said.
"They found relief through substances that are not regulated, and it took their lives."
Record number of overdose deaths in 2020
Moreland is far from alone in her grief.
In 2020, Waterloo region saw a record-shattering 102 suspected overdose deaths.
This year, the region is once again on track to surpass that number. As of Aug. 16, there have been 61 suspected overdose deaths, the same number as in all of 2018 and an increase from 53 at this point last year.
"If love could have saved all of them, I suspect all of them would still be alive," said Moreland, who will speak Tuesday evening at an Overdose Awareness Day vigil in Victoria Park.
"These people are loved, and for every one that dies, there's at least eight to 10 people deeply affected by that loss."
Toxic drug supply
International Overdose Awareness Day began in 2001 to honour people lost to drug overdoses and recognize the issues that lead to drug-use deaths. Since 2012, the day has been co-ordinated by the non-profit Australian public health organization Penington Institute.
During the pandemic, the uptick in overdose deaths has been linked at least in part to an increasingly toxic supply of street drugs, said Joanna Han, co-ordinator with the Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy.
That means people buying drugs often don't know what's in them or their strength.
"Nobody knows what could happen, possibly with something they may have used previously in the past and had no reaction," said Han.
Bree Woods has seen this first hand as a manager with the Sanguen Health Centre, which offers health care and support for people who use drugs.
"Folks that we maybe think are doing well get an unbeknownst bad batch," said Woods. "And that ends their life, and we'll never see them again."
Range of solutions needed
To keep the trend of rising overdose deaths from getting worse, all three believe in a multi-pronged approach of both minimizing the immediate harm caused by drug use and helping to address the problems that create addiction struggles.
Local harm reduction programs include Kitchener's consumption and treatment site, and the safe drug supply program. Woods and Moreland say they also support decriminalization of street drugs.
More funding for housing, mental health support and youth programs is also needed, they said.
"It would be wonderful if we all understood that we all are a small crisis or a large crisis away from being in the same position as these folks," said Woods. "They are no different than us."