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Coquitlam first responders face growing toxic drug overdose battle

Every siren signals another possible overdose in Coquitlam as local firefighters, moms, health-care workers and advocates respond to B.C.'s toxic drug crisis.

Every time a Coquitlam resident hears a fire or ambulance siren, it could signal that a neighbour, loved one, friend or colleague is dying of a toxic drug overdose.

At 505 response calls last year, Coquitlam Fire Rescue is on the front lines of B.C.'s overdose crisis.

At least once a day, local firefighters are called to help someone in distress.

"You know these people are in crisis and are struggling and they (toxic drug overdose calls) definitely have an impact on staff," Ogloff told the Tri-City News.

While Coquitlam may not be in the headlines for its overdose crisis, its residents have suffered greatly — with 177 deaths due to poisoned drugs since 2016, according to the BC Coroners Service, including three deaths in the month of April.

Meanwhile, Coquitlam Fire Rescue overdose calls have grown each year:

  • 2020 - 189 
  • 2021 - 419
  • 2022 - 505
  • 2023 - 194 (to April 31)

Most overdose victims are men who use alone

Most victims are men, often working in the trades, and typically between the ages of 30 and 59, but there are teenagers who have died as well. These are the young people who didn’t get a chance to grow up.

For Belinda Ruckman, losing her 24-year-old son, Reno, in 2019 to poisoned drugs was a devastating blow.

"I didn't know how to carry on," Ruckman said.

Ruckman, and her surviving son, Riley, are trying to understand this complex health issue while also seeking to raise awareness about the toxic drug overdose crisis.

While the Ruckmans are critical of those who use labels such as "junkie" and who fail to understand the link between substance use and mental health, they also say some progress is being made toward ending the stigma around substance use.

Every summer they organize a shoreline cleanup in Port Coquitlam called The Reno Kindness Challenge, while also raising funds for Moms Stop the Harm.

"For our family, hard as it is to talk about, you have to try to talk about it to try to save somebody's life," Ruckman said.

Riley, who said he faces his own mental health challenges, said there isn't enough being done to provide people with advice, support and recovery if they face mental health concerns or substance use issues.

Too many speed bumps to get substance use services

"When the person tries to get help there’s so many speed bumps to jump over, and by the time something happens, they're back out on the street," Riley said.

They want more resources and a clearer pathway for people needing help.

This is a goal that Fraser Health is also trying to achieve, according to medical health officer Dr. Ingrid Tyler.

Fraser Health has a website offering people help if they have a substance use problem, including resources for youth.

"Since 2016, there have been significant investments locally to expand harm reduction services and increase access to services," Tyler said.

Among the local harm reduction services provided, she said, are mobile and fixed sites across the Tri-Cites, offering

  • naloxone training and drug checking,
  • apps such as the Lifeguard alerting system for witnessing substance use and preventing an overdose,
  • overdose teams that work with individuals requiring access to the unregulated drug supply and who are at risk of drug poisoning,
  • opioid agonist treatment clinics, offering drug replacement therapy.

Tri-Cities Mental Health and Substance Youth Centre in Port Coquitlam connects adults with services, she said, and the START (Short-term Assessment Response Team) in Port Moody offers mental health and substance use services for youth.

However, she said,  there are many factors making it difficult to put an end to the toxic drug overdose crisis.

Mental health has been deteriorating on a per capita basis since 2016, a condition strongly linked to substance use. At the same time, there remains a lot of stigma around both individual mental health issues and substance use, she said.

"This crisis doesn’t discriminate between various levels of society, we hear heartbreaking stores from neighbours, colleagues and friends that bring home the challenges that our society is currently facing here."

Local groups seek to end stigmatization

One local group that is trying hard to end stigma is the Tri-Cities Community Action Team (TCCAT), a group of community leaders and health care providers, who work on projects to put the toxic drug situation and its harms into peoples' consciousness.

They do this by holding campaigns such as one that recently saw 1,200 flags erected in Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam, representing the more than 2,200 B.C. toxic drug deaths in 2022.

"We aim to break down the stigma surrounding mental health and substance use through creative expressions, interactive education, and connecting resources. Whether this be at community events, on the side of the road, at youth centres, through speech, or providing a safe space to share stories," said program manager Roxanne Saxon. 

Among the organizations supporting TCCAT, is the Vancouver Island Construction Association which is promoting harm reduction strategies for construction workers with its Tailgate Toolkit.

Saxon acknowledged that some people are initially uncomfortable with the harm reduction message promoted by the group, but said they might change their minds if they knew it can save lives.

For Chloe Goodison, there is a sense of urgency in breaking down stigma and dealing with the fact that many people use opioids and harm reduction strategies may be the quickest way to save lives.

Recovery is pointless if someone has already died, she said.

Tackling harm reduction one naloxone kit at a time

Goodison, a Port Moody resident who started NaloxHome presentations in School District 43, said education is key to getting out the message about B.C.'s drug crisis and preventing more toxic drug deaths.

She said armed with information and understanding, young people go from being dispassionate bystanders to active participants — and carrying naloxone kits with them.

"What ever we need to do to keep people alive long enough for them to choose to get better that’s what we will do."

The Reno Kindness Challenge details

The third annual Reno Kindness Challenge will take place Aug. 9, 2023 in Lions Park. 

The purpose, according to Ruckman, is to "inspire people to give love and connect to others through acts of kindness. Our goal is to reduce stigma and bring awareness to mental health and substance-use issues. By giving kindness to others, we create a network of support where we can foster empathy and compassion in our communities."

Find out more about The Reno Kindness Challenge on Instagram.

This article is part of an in-depth, province-wide journalistic effort by Glacier Media to examine the scope, costs and toll of the opioid and toxic drug crisis in British Columbia – a public health emergency that has taken at least 11,807 lives since 2016.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911. If you need help with substance abuse, call the B.C. government's alcohol and drug information and referral service at 1-800-663-1441. It's available 24 hours a day.

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