'Heartbreaking grief' for outreach workers coping with loss to opioid crisis
"The main strain right now is seeing the people you provide services to die one after the other"
Working on the front lines as a harm reduction worker in Greater Sudbury can be emotionally taxing, especially given the recent increase in opioid-related deaths.
For Amber Fritz, seeing the constant loss of life among drug users she was trying to help took an emotional toll on her.
Fritz is a support worker and harm reduction educator with Réseau ACCESS Network, a new position for her.
She spent the last seven years working as a front-line harm reduction outreach worker on the streets of Greater Sudbury. Part of that time was with Réseau ACCESS Network. Before that, she worked for the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth (SACY).
"My heart was getting incredibly heavy," she said of why she left the front-line work.
"The burnout from just the ongoing multiple loss was really taking its toll on me.
"It wasn't just people that I would consider clients or service users. These were people that I built professional relationships with and that I cared about so deeply."
The 2020 opioid-related death statistics released last week by Public Health Sudbury and District were not a surprise to Fritz, who was working as an outreach worker during that time.
The figures show 105 deaths last year compared to 56 in 2019.
When we're talking about numbers ... these are human beings that are no longer with us, that are no longer a part of our community.- Amber Fritz, former harm reduction outreach worker
For Fritz, those are real people with names and faces who she tried to help.
"I think of the incredible loss of life."
"I think of the grief that people are experiencing, both people who are part of the drug using community, as well as front-line workers. The grief is palpable at this point."
"You talk to folks and they tell you about losing four or five people in a month, if not less — friends, family members — and it's just heartbreaking," said Fritz.
"People speaking about their lost loved ones, and having tears come to their eyes is not an uncommon occurrence."
She sees similar exhaustion among other harm reduction outreach workers.
"The main strain right now is seeing the people you provide services to die one after the other," she said, adding that front-lines workers want to help keep drug users safe.
The outreach workers provide naloxone in the event of an overdose, but may also provide counselling, referrals to other services, or help with housing or shelter space.
"With what we have available to us, we do the absolute best that we can," said Fritz.
What caused the increase?
Fritz believes one of the major problems leading to the increase in opioid-related deaths last year is a toxic drug supply.
"Anyone who has to go to the illicit market to get [drugs], it's literal Russian roulette any time they seek out what they need in that moment.
"It's incredibly challenging to do [harm reduction outreach work] when the illicit supply is so incredibly toxic, but we do what we can."
Fritz also believes mental-health issues, poverty, intergenerational trauma and a lack of affordable housing are also contributing factors.
The COVID-19 pandemic didn't help the situation.
"It was a global pandemic — that's understandable," she said.
"I found personally that COVID kind of eclipsed the overdose crisis, at least for a period of time."
Safe consumption site 'badly needed'
For Fritz, there isn't one solution to help reduce the number of deaths among users.
"So having a safer alternative to the illicit [drug] market, having affordable housing be more widely available, steps in that direction would only be helpful," she said.
Although having a supervised consumption site in Greater Sudbury will help, Fritz said, it's not the overall answer.
"I do think it's a badly needed service and it would offer people a safer environment to consume toxic drugs, should something go wrong someone's there to intervene.
"It's one piece of a larger approach to help support the drug using community."
Fritz said the death of one individual drug user causes a ripple effect.
"One thing that gets a little bit overlooked sometimes when we're talking about numbers is that these are human beings that are no longer with us, that are no longer a part of our community.
"This person's life is gone, but it's their friends and their family and their loved ones that are grieving and reeling after the multiple, seemingly never-ending loss."