Journalist-turned-addictions counsellor brings harm reduction approach to Prairies

Carli Rossal, 30, is helping to spread a harm reduction approach to addiction recovery in Winnipeg's Jewish community, and she's drawing on her own past struggles with substance abuse to do it.

Carli Rossall, 30, started Don't Just Say Don't workshop to help educators change conversation of addiction

Carli Rossall, 30, is one of CBC Manitoba's Future 40 nominees in the community, social activism and volunteerism category. (Submitted)

Carli Rossall is helping to spread a harm reduction approach to addiction recovery in Winnipeg's Jewish community, and she's drawing on her own past struggles with substance abuse to do it.

"I believe in prevention over deterrence, because I think with deterrents come a lot of judgment, and that's where stigma comes from," she said.

Rossall, 30, is a nominee in CBC Manitoba's Future 40 competition, and it was her own battles with addiction that forced her to leave a promising career in journalism behind in exchange for treatment — and ultimately a future as an addictions counsellor.

Rossall did a three-month practicum at CBC Toronto before graduating from Ryerson University's journalism program, all the while struggling with addiction. When she was fired from media jobs in Ontario, Rossall set off to New York, hoping for a fresh start. But she eventually met a similar crossroads when she lost jobs in the Big Apple due to a relapse.

Hoping for a change of pace in British Columbia, Rossall became a yoga instructor there, only to see that job also slip away.

"My constant failings were due to an addiction that I refused to recognize or treat because I didn't believe that I fit the mould of who an addict was. I was in such denial," Rossall wrote in an email.

"Everything around me was falling apart, and I had nobody in my life, and I had debts up the wazoo. I was in and out of the hospital for overdosing and I still couldn't reconcile this image of who I aspired to be and who I had become. So for a very long time I just went on that way until it was really a matter of life or death."

She went on to finish a treatment program on Vancouver Island in 2014.

"This was by no means my first stint in rehab. Very few people 'get it' their first time around and that's OK."

Rossall went back to school to become an addictions counsellor and recovery advocate. She said she was initially hesitant to leave her fulfilling new West Coast life as a front-line addictions worker to come back to Manitoba.

"I think there's a lot of false beliefs around what areas of the country addiction is most profoundly impacting. And so for a really long time I thought, 'I'm not going to be able to do this kind of work in a province like Manitoba,' which is ridiculous — especially [as] I am a recovering addict myself and I know we come from all walks of life and all provinces."

Rossall now works as the addictions counsellor for the Jewish Child and Family Services of Winnipeg.

She also started the Don't Just Say Don't campaign, which Rossall describes as an alternative approach to talking to educators and students about what substance abuse looks like.

The initiative is modelled on after a harm reduction approach, more common out West, that seeks to educate rather than spread stigma about substance abuse. She said there are still a lot of barriers to recovery rooted in misunderstanding and a rejection of what harm reduction stands for.

"There's going to be resistance anywhere you go I think and generally that comes from maybe not always understanding the distinction between what harm reduction and enabling looks like. And I guess from the outside that can look very similar," she said.

Manitoba has a lot of ground to cover.- Carli Rossall

"There's this idea that creating these safe spaces and alternative approaches to recovery really only makes the problem worse … which in my experience is not the case at all. It's definitely a desperate response; they're just trying to stop people from dying, and people are dying left right and centre, and they've got they're hands tied and thinking, 'What else can we do?' So, by that accord, I think people are coming around to the idea because they just don't like the body count."

The province launched a harm reduction resource website this year in light of ongoing opioid overdoses, and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's Street Connections program provides clean needles and other services to people with addictions.

But Rossall says compared to out west, there still isn't enough of a harm reduction presence in Manitoba.

"As far as a hub or a centre or a place people can go … methadone clinics are few and far between, the waits are three to four months long, and that's like an eternity for someone who is struggling," Rossall said.

"Manitoba has a lot of ground to cover in order to even get close to what's going on in B.C."

We want to celebrate the province's new generation of leaders, builders and change-makers under the age of 40. 

Do you know someone under 40 who is shaping Manitoba's future? Nominations are only open from Oct. 10 to Oct. 23 at ​11:59 p.m. CT.