Ontario’s opioid crisis is real, but there is a path toward limiting addictions

Harm from opioid use in Ontario has been steadily on the rise in recent years. Data released from Public Health Ontario shows that overdose deaths have increased each year from 2011 to 2017. Last year alone, about 45 per cent more people died than in 2016. Emergency room visits are climbing at an even higher rate and the numbers show the crisis is affecting all ages, from teens to seniors.

While it’s a sad reality addiction and misuse has become so prevalent that it’s needed, it is a welcomed sign that naloxone treatment has become more commonplace and that a larger segment of the public understands its use in order to save a life. This week, the Ontario government introduced legislation that allows police officers to administer the treatment without the launch of a Special Investigations Unit investigation. That puts lifesaving first and it should be commended, just as last year’s federal Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act is for putting harm reduction and intervention first.

These are a good response to a growing problem that, unfortunately, appears here to stay. Continued police vigilance to limit those who would capitalize on addiction by the illicit trafficking of these potent medications must also be continued and supported. While members of the public may wish to pretend this trend isn’t gaining traction in their backyards, a visible response is warranted.

With all that said, some of the most important work in Ontario’s fight against the spread of opioid misuse is in preventing addiction from taking root.

Retraining and monitoring medical professionals who prescribe narcotics is one tangible way to reduce the flow of these drugs into public hands. Encouraging smaller doses and the use of alternative medicines for pain control is one way to be proactive. It will reduce the chance of accidental addiction. Another is by adopting more stringent follow-up regimen for those who have been prescribed narcotics to ensure they aren’t showing signs of overdose and are following directions. Perhaps, there’s a role for pharmacists and nurse practitioners to play. The encouragement and promotion of safe disposal sites would also limit opportunities for theft or misuse.

There also must be an increased focus on the mental state of health as well as the physical. Continued research into the causes of mental health conditions and addictive personalities would be helpful in preventing people from seeking the influence of medication. Quicker access to counselling and support services will make a difference in keeping people from succumbing to addiction. The same is true for funding medical health professionals who are able to prescribe medications that safely regulate mood disorders. All of that comes with an increased acceptance within care systems and the public at-large that people living with mental health conditions is normal. Stigma contributes.

And lastly, but perhaps chiefly, it’s important to look to our youth and seek generational change. Through family, school, and social institutions, there is a duty to build their resilience, teach positive behaviours, and promote honest interactions with the world around them. Youth need to be taught about the real dangers the exist around them and they need to be able to trust the supports available to them to not make bad choices. Naturally, that won’t stop every eventual user, but it may stem the tide over time and that’s a path toward positive change.

-Adam Bramburger