We can't end Canada's meth crisis until we recognize our larger mental health crisis: Sharon Blady

Thirty years ago, it was crack. Today it’s meth. The problem is the same, though the chemicals keep changing, says former Manitoba health minister Sharon Blady. And to treat the problem, we need to admit we have a problem with how we address mental health and addictions, she says.

Manitoba's former health minister says we must end stigma, reach out to those struggling with addiction

A syringe and a spoon.
Helping those struggling with addiction to methamphetamine and other drugs relies on recognizing the root causes of the addiction, including mental health issues, says Sharon Blady. (Motortion Films/Shutterstock)

Manitoba, like the rest of Canada, is in the throes of a meth crisis. It is heartbreaking.

More heartbreaking, it is part of a larger cycle that will continue to repeat itself until we transform our beliefs and practices around mental health and addictions.

Thirty years ago, it was crack. Today it's meth. A hundred and fifty years ago it was opium. The problem is the same, the chemicals keep changing. They cycle in and out of headlines, but not out of use.

The life-imploding impact of addiction never really goes away.

We need to stop replacing one drug crisis with another. To do so, we need to admit a few things.

Treat mental health, addiction together

First, let's admit we have a problem with how we address mental health and addictions. We talk about them together, but we don't often enough treat them together.

This, despite their co-occurrences and connections, including stigma and the need for more investments in mental health and well-being in a proactive and preventative manner.

The last thing someone in the dark places of a mental health crisis needs is to be left alone.- Sharon Blady

As someone with a mood disorder who has sought treatment, volunteers in peer support, and was responsible for the provincial mental health and addictions portfolio as a cabinet minister, I can tell you stigma is alive and well, and services are not what those of us with lived experience need them to be.

I tried to make improvements in my time in office but will be the first to admit that I was not able to do enough. We all need to own this, regardless of political leanings. This issue crosses all party lines.

Watch Winnipeggers speak about the frustration of getting treatment at CBC's April 26 town hall:

Parents, community workers speak out about dire meth situation in Winnipeg

6 years ago
Duration 3:32
Featured VideoCBC Asks: Breaking Meth was held Wednesday, April 25.

Second, no one self-medicates for lack of something better to do.

When someone self-medicates, regardless of the substance, or activity of choice, it is because — due to trauma or mental health issues — they are either trying to numb pain, feel something because they are numb, or fill a related void. Something is either too present, or missing, in the life of a self-medicating person.

We need mental health intervention at the earliest stages before we consider self-medicating.

Too often, we wait for an official diagnosis from someone with the right medical degree before we can access what we need to recover. This means long times on wait lists. We are left to ruminate, stewing in our own juices, more likely have our mental health issue escalate and more vulnerable to self-medicating.

The last thing someone in the dark places of a mental health crisis needs is to be left alone.

Listen to those who ask for help

We may say we want to be alone, but it is not what we need. Listen. Don't confuse what the voice of my condition is saying to you with what I am trying to say to you. If I am in front of you, I am asking for help.

When someone seeks help, it is our moral obligation to help them where they are, and to recognize that the window of opportunity is often small.- Sharon Blady

Don't send me home from an ER because I have calmed down and seem fine. Connect me to someone. Now. Before you prep the room for the next person. Don't let me leave alone.

This is where peer support can be utilized: we need someone who has walked a path like ours, and to be connected to supports. Now.

Those of us with lived experience must be at the decision-making tables regarding those supports and services — not just our own, but system-wide.

If we are to end stigma, and support recovery, we must value lived experience and empower those with it. It can provide resiliency, insight, empathy, and other assets. We can be most valuable in the very places we are most likely to be misunderstood.

Schools and workplaces lose a great deal when they handle mental health issues defensively or dismissively. Stigmatizing environments can be part of the reason people self-medicate. Leaders need to consider that harsh possibility when someone they lead is struggling with mental health or addiction issues.

A man prepares his arm before injecting at Insite in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 2011. Supervised injection sites create an environment where trust can be established with those who help drug users toward recovery, says Sharon Blady. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

When someone seeks help, it is our moral obligation to help them where they are, and to recognize that the window of opportunity is often small.

The onus is on the well, on the professionals, to do their utmost when that opportunity presents itself. There is no guarantee that if sent away we will come back, or that we will live long enough to exercise that option.

This is the value of supervised consumption sites, and other harm-reduction models. They mitigate other risks associated with self-medication. They create an environment where trust can be established with those who can give the self-medicating person options toward recovery at their own pace.

We can break the cycle if we admit these shortcomings and change what we are doing. Will it be a 100 per cent perfect solution? Not likely, as we are all fallible humans, and darkness will sadly find some of us.

But we can create an environment with fewer people in crisis or self-medicating. That means that for those who do experience crisis, we can better support them as resources will be needed for few, rather than many, and provided without judgment.

To end the meth crisis, we need to recognize it as a symptom of a larger mental health crisis. Together we must do the heavy lifting required to end stigma, empower those with lived experience, and transform care to meet people where they are.

If not, we will continue to perpetuate the heartbreaking cycle of a never-ending addiction crisis.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Sharon Blady is the founder of Speak Up: Mental Health Advocates and Blady & Associates and a former NDP minister of health for Manitoba. Prior to her time in office, she taught in nursing, social work and Native studies at the University of Manitoba.