A crowd of people gathered in front of Upper Room Mission in Vernon, pushing tightly together for a photo before letting out a cheer in unison: “end overdose!”
It was a moment symbolic of the way local organizations are trying to stick close together to stand a better chance of fighting the opioid crisis.
To mark International Overdose Awareness Day (this Saturday, Aug. 31), a Wednesday event co-hosted by the Interior Health Authority and Vernon’s Upper Room Mission brought together groups and societies involved with overdose prevention, inviting the people of Vernon to learn about the resources available in their city.
“Our main goal for today’s event is to highlight how amazing our community is and what we do to support people who are struggling with mental health and addictions,” said Jennifer Glen, an overdose prevention nurse with Interior Health.
That’s not the only goal of the day. Glen says an equally important task is to end the stigma around opioid addiction and the use of available lifelines like naloxone – especially among working men who tend to be single and are using opioids in isolation.
“Those are the individuals that we are losing at alarming rates,” Glen said. “So one of our largest wishes and wants is to start to support that population, to end stigma, so that they will reach out and get the support and services they deserve.”
A microphone was set at the front tent for the organizers to make general announcements. It soon became an open mic for testimonials by people whose lives had been forever affected by the epidemic.
Vernon saw 24 overdose related deaths last year. While recent statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service show a 35 per cent decrease in overdose deaths in the province this June compared to the same month last year, Glen says it’s too early to declare progress for the Vernon area.
“We know that in the province there’s a general trend down so far this year, (but) I’m not sure we’re seeing that in Vernon. And so we’ll have to continue to watch the coroner report statistics to get clarification on whether we’re going down as well.”
Megan Desimone, manager of Interior Health’s Mental Health and Substance Use service for the North Okanagan, notes that Vernon and the rest of the valley have been among the areas in the province most in need of relief from the opioid crisis.
“Unfortunately right now the Okanagan has a higher death rate per capita than other places in B.C.,” said Desimone. “We’re certainly higher than the average.”
That said, Desimone draws optimism from the resources she sees in Vernon, and the people who mobilize them.
“We’re really unique and I’m not sure if it’s based on size or whatever else, but this community works incredibly well and to the benefit of all the clients that we serve,” she said. She highlights the Harm Reduction Action Team, which brings together about 20 organizations on a regular basis to avoid overlapping in services, and make sure all services are covered.
At around 11:30 a.m. the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s Purple Ribbon Caravan made its way to the gathering before quickly moving on towards Merritt. The Caravan set off from Osoyoos on Tuesday on a two day tour to spread awareness about the effects of the opioid crisis on First Nations People, who are four and a half times more likely to suffer an overdose related death.
Information booths were set up at Upper Room Mission by 17 local groups and organizations, including Interior Health, The Cammy LaFleur Street Clinic, Turning Points Collaborative, Hope Outreach, Canadian Mental Health Association, Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy and a new peer group called Vernon Entrenched People Against Discrimination.
The event ran from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Attendants enjoyed a barbecue provided by Fix Auto, and several draw prizes were handed out courtesy of community partners like MQN Architects and Interior Design, Healthy Spot Pet Nutrition, VEPAD, Downtown Vernon Association, Okanagan Indian Band and the Interior Health Authority.