Black balloons could be seen around town Thursday to mark the sixth anniversary of B.C.’s declaration of the opioid crisis.
Members of the public met at Vernon’s downtown Mental Health and Substance Use (MHSU) centre, where bundles of black balloons were fixed to the building. The balloons would soon be distributed to the crowd for an awareness walk from the clinic to Polson Park and back.
Interior Health launched an awareness campaign that saw black balloons displayed in communities throughout the region on April 14. Businesses and residents were also invited to take part.
Since April 14, 2016, close to 1,500 people have died of an overdose within the Interior Health region. That number swells to more than 9,000 province-wide.
Vernon councillor Kelly Fehr was among those at the walk. Fehr, who works at Turning Point Collaborative Society, has been forthcoming about his own struggles with alcoholism, and has been a passionate advocate for harm reduction.
“Things have not slowed down,” Fehr said, reflecting on the last six years. “We’ve seen more and more deaths every year, and today is an opportunity for community members to come together and honour the loved ones that they’ve lost to support each other and to raise awareness.
“I hope events like this start breaking down stigma so that people who live with substance use issues feel comfortable in talking about it, because the majority of people who are passing away are dying in their own homes,” he added.
Fehr said he’s pleased with recent announcements from the province for increased harm reduction services and thinks new substance use supports for youth will be particularly helpful. Locally, in March the province announced it will add four new mental health and substance-use services in the Vernon area, while recruiting 19 full-time support workers.
Rhea Evans attended the walk having previously served Vernon’s homeless population as a support worker for Upper Room Mission. She said her time in that position brought her very close to a lot of people.
“Since then a lot of those people have died,” she said. “It’s something that’s affected me personally and professionally and any day like this, I want to be here to support.”
Cheryl Jackson works on the front lines of the toxic drug crisis as a peer support worker for the Cammy LaFleur Street Clinic and the MHSU. She helped organize Thursday’s black balloon walk, and she has some ideas for lessening the number of overdoses locally.
“What we really need here in Vernon is a 24-hour mobile unit that has services,” she said. It’s an idea that’s been picked up in other cities, such as Terrace in 2019.
As part of Interior Health’s black balloon campaign, the public is encouraged to start a conversation about substance use with friends and family, or learn to use non-stigmatizing language about substance use.
If you see a potential overdose, call 911, noting that the Good Samaritan law can protect people from drug possession charges if they experience an overdose or call 911 after witnessing one.