Sask. doctor calls for better addictions services after 6 overdose deaths in 4 weeks

An addictions advocate, retired anaesthesiologist and former addict wants the province to improve its mental health and addictions treatment system.

Dr. Wendy Gore-Hickman says she helps 15-20 people at any given time with their addictions

A discarded needle lies in a puddle at Richards Street and Georgia Street in Vancouver. The three cities experiencing the highest number of illicit drug overdoses are Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Dr. Wendy Gore-Hickman says there have been six overdose deaths in Saskatoon over the last four weeks — and those are just the ones she knows about. 

The retired anesthesiologist and addictions advocate says she helps 15-20 people with addictions at any given time, but she faces constant systemic challenges in Saskatchewan. As a result, she sends many of her clients out of province.

"Our addiction treatment is so disjointed," she told reporters after Wednesday's question period at the legislative building.

"There's no flow from the time somebody needs help until they get help and it makes it almost impossible to get people help in this province."

Gore-Hickman has her own experiences with addiction.

After her drinking became progressively worse — to the point where her work colleagues noticed — Gore-Hickman went for treatment outside of the province.

She's been an advocate for better addictions services in Saskatchewan ever since.

Gore-Hickman says she wants to see more and faster detox services. She says people can sometimes wait up to two weeks for a bed in a detox centre.

"Most of the time we lose those people," she said. "They can't wait for a bed and so they're back using again."

For those who do get a bed, Gore-Hickman says a "barbaric" withdrawal often causes them to leave. 

Dr. Wendy Gore-Hickman, a retired anaesthesiologist and addictions advocate, says she helps 15-20 people with addictions at any given time. (CBC News)

If someone gets through the withdrawal, Gore-Hickman says they may have to wait up to six weeks for additional help.

Furthermore, she says detoxing someone who has an opioid addiction without immediate medical attention can be dangerous because they're more at risk of overdosing if they relapse.

For the most part, she says health care in Saskatchewan is "unparalleled in Canada and in the world," but the province's mental health and addictions care is "so far below the rest of our medical care.

"We just haven't kept up with science in mental health, especially in addictions," she said.

She says removing the stigma around mental health and addiction is also crucial — a stigma she has personally experienced.

"So often when you think of a person with addictions you think of some lowlife … under the bridge drinking out of a brown paper bag, but I'm a face of addiction," she said.

"Somebody invested in me and got another 17 years of productivity out of me."

"I'm worth investing in, and so are the rest of them."

Government response

In response, Health Minister Jim Reiter said there will be more funding for mental health and addictions services in the next budget, especially for more beds and improved wait times.

"We understand there have been waiting lists for some, that's not acceptable," he told reporters.

"We want people to be able to get treatment so we'll be making steps in that direction."

He said the province is in the process of launching multiple projects to help with mental health supports, as well as looking at new services other provinces are offering.

- With files from Adam Hunter