Tackling basic needs, McGill students hand out harm reduction kits at addiction treatment clinics

A group of McGill students from different academic backgrounds packaged more than 100 opioid withdrawal kits to support patients struggling with substance use disorders.

'In school we're not necessarily taught how to help these patients,' med student founder says

A group of students prepare withdrawal kits at a table.
ConsumAction, a student-led initiative, is giving away withdrawal kits to patients of Montreal substance use disorder clinics. (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

By far, Felix David's "most terrible" experience in medical school was a clinical simulation of a patient suffering from substance use disorders.

"I remember freezing completely, not knowing what to do whatsoever," he said.

That uncertainty, coupled with a stint at a clinic in Lac-Brome, Que. that is affiliated with an addiction treatment centre, pushed him to found ConsumAction.

"I feel like in school we're not necessarily taught how to help these patients," David, now in his third year of studies at McGill University, said. "It's not necessarily treating them medically, but also everything that's behind it, their basic human needs."

The student-led initiative aims to alleviate the stigma surrounding substance use and to raise awareness about overdoses. To that end, it is offering drug users survival kits that include basics like toothbrushes and personal care products but also the tools to help with withdrawal.

People who stop using opioids after using them regularly for an extensive period go through withdrawal and display symptoms that are similar to the flu, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and sensitivity to sound.

To help with those symptoms, David and a group of McGill students from different academic backgrounds packaged more than 100 opioid withdrawal kits on Sunday. Each kit includes items like ibuprofen, Gravol and basic hygiene products.

"Not treating those symptoms can leave negative effects, especially a negative perception of what it might be like to come off drugs," said Victoria Sebag, a third-year medical student and a co-president of the group.

The kits will be ready for doctors to give out this week at the Jewish General Hospital's substance use disorder clinic and at the La Licorne medical clinic.

A young man stands in front of a group of volunteers.
Felix David says medical school sometimes fails to teach students how to address patients' 'basic human needs.' (Valeria Cori-Manocchio/CBC)

Sebag, an aspiring psychiatrist, says people easily write off substance use disorders as "one-dimensional issues," instead of understanding how patients' inability to afford basic necessities exacerbates their problems.

"The very first step to helping those people out of their troubles is lending a hand, letting them know that we're here," she said.

After assessing whether there's demand for the kits and how to improve them, David says the team of volunteers will get to work on their next campaign: distributing naloxone kits on-campus.

David says many people don't know how to react or even "how to recognize an overdose, so that's why I think education is really important."

based on a report by Valeria Cori-Manocchio