The W5 documentary ‘Steeltown Down,’ released in February of this year, has sparked conversation amongst Saultites from all walks of life.
For those on the front lines, and those who are experiencing the devastating impacts of addictions either firsthand or through a loved one, this has opened up the perfect time to really hammer out a plan based on the needs of our community specifically.
And that is exactly what a group of concerned citizens, from various backgrounds and skill levels, have done in partnership with community agencies who are involved in assisting those who struggle with mental health and addictions issues, did on Monday night.
The ‘Healing our Community’ event, a grassroots response to the opioid crisis, aimed to engage with the public and raise awareness about the issues at hand, by providing educational material, fostering connections, and clarifying common misconceptions surrounding addictions and mental illness.
Attendees from all backgrounds and walks of life came in to soak up all the information that they could, and to hear the stories of those who have lived with addictions.
The panelists at this event shared personal stories as well as information from their respective agencies.
The panelists, each from different backgrounds, had different stories and information to share, addressing concerns raised by the community in the past few weeks.
Representatives from the Indian Friendship Centre (IFC) Kim Pelletier, Algoma Public Health (APH), Shawna Thomas, and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CHMA), Lisa Carricato, explained the different services provided by their agencies.
Pelletier emphasized the fact that the IFC is not just for Indigenous people. While they do provide services and treatment that is geared specifically to Indigenous culture and healing, they are available to help anyone in our community.
Thomas shared that APH is focusing on harm reduction.
She described this as “focusing more on how to use safely, assisting people to use less, and encouraging users to never use alone in order to reduce the risk of opioid-related death.”
She also encourages those looking for help, either for themselves or for a friend, to visit ConnexOntario, an excellent tool to find help and resources nearby.
Carricato emphasized that the agencies are doing the best they can with what they have.
“We are all coming together to provide walk-in services, and a lot of the services and programs that we provide aren’t funded, we and other agencies are using their base funding and staff to provide them.”
But a shared sentiment amongst all organizations is that the agencies are understaffed, underfunded, and staff are overworked.
Our local agencies are squeezing budgets and multi-tasking, but everyone is feeling the pressure.
In order to #EraseTheDifference between funding and public opinion towards mental health versus physical health, Carricato encourages everyone to sign this petition in order to pressure the government to bridge the gap between the $54 billion spent on healthcare annually versus the $3.4 billion of those dollars that go to mental health.
In addition to information on programs, services, and other helpful tips for those who are struggling with addiction or love someone who is, Tim Murphy and Sherrie Pintaric shared how addiction has influenced their lives personally.
Murphy struggled with addiction to crack cocaine and had an extremely difficult time coming to terms with being a gay man at a time where was no support or acceptance for the LGBTQ community.
Without a strong support system, his sisters, who pushed him through the process once he was ready to get help, having done all of the legwork, research, and set up connections for him, he claimed that he would not be alive today without their help.
Murphy emphasized the importance of being able to help addicts when they need help. “You can’t tell an addict they have to wait three months for treatment,” he explained, “You have to strike while the iron is hot because there is a very small window of opportunity where they are in a state to get and accept help.”
Pintaric could relate to Murphy’s sisters, having lost her brother, Richard Peat, to a fentanyl overdose in November 2016 after months of trying to help him through rehab.
She moved the audience to tears when she shared the harrowing tale of Richard’s spiral downward in the summer of 2016, after he was caught stealing groceries and his father found drugs on him.
Realizing that her brother had a serious addiction to a number of different substances, Pintaric and her family immediately began researching how to get treatment near home.
“The Elliot Lake Treatment Centre was a three month waiting list, and we didn’t have three months to wait. We decided on the Toronto Rehab Centre, a 45 day program that would cost $18,000, Pintaric explained.
Her parents cashed in their RSPs because “retirement would be nothing without Rich.”
During the horrific drive down to Toronto, Richard suffered painful withdrawals.
Mark Barnes, a pharmacist and addiction specialist based in Ottawa, took time to share his knowledge with SaultOnline last week, he describes the experience of withdrawing as “the worst stomach flu/cholera possible while simultaneously having the worst panic attack.”
Despite this, Pintaric stated that her mother claimed she would have traded places with her son in an instant.
After 33 days in rehab, he was evicted for having attempted to sneak in various substances and failing drug tests three times.
Although their hopes were high that Richard would would embrace rehab and make a full recovery, his disheartened and exhausted family was forced to bring him home to try and heal.
Richard’s family had so many questions about his secret life, Pintaric became obsessed with researching all the different drugs and elements of addiction to try to gain some insight into her brother’s mind.
Pintaric explained that some education on withdrawals and detox would have assisted her family, since they had no prior experience dealing with addictions.
The next few months, Richard was evicted from his home and moved in with his parents, where he came home high all the time and had to be monitored constantly.
In November, Richard’s family received the dreaded phone call.
He had experienced his first overdose, and it would be his last.
First responders tried 5 Naloxone kits, and the doctor said he had never seen fentanyl levels so high. He was moved to the ICU, where his brain function ceased and his organs shut down.
At the age of 25, Richard lost his battle with addiction, having knowingly purchased fentanyl that turned out to be extremely potent.
While all of the speakers came from different backgrounds and had a plethora of reasons for taking part in the ‘Healing Our Community’ event, whether it be through lived experience or front-line work, the key takeaway that was shared by all was summarized best by Murphy, “We need to stop pointing fingers at each other and start finding solutions.”
And he is exactly right.
Regardless of how the rise in opioid abuse came about and why, we must accept that it has arrived and it is a medical condition, explained Barnes.
He believes – and many panelists and attendees reiterated this sentiment – that we are beyond discussing if there is an epidemic.
Murphy says we also need to stop seeing addiction as a choice and start seeing it as a disorder.
This has been seconded by Barnes, who states, “Addicts want to escape the pain, it all comes down to stopping pain. It can be mental, it can be physical, or it can be a combination of both. It’s a mental health disorder, not a character flaw.”
A number of organizations were available to answer questions and provide information on their services. These organizations work together in order to bridge gaps in communication and are continually trying to improve services in Sault Ste. Marie.
They want the community to recognize that there are discrepancies between what is happening on the streets and what is being reported.
As Thomas explained, “We can’t quantify the people who O.D and deal with it with Naloxone. There is a difference between real time statistics and consensus. Sometimes it is difficult for us to combine all the information with other organizations for confidentiality reasons.”
The stats have been updated on APH’s website to reflect the most recent findings, and they can be found here.
They also want the community to know that work is being done in order to help build resilient people and help them along the recovery process.
Pharmacists with the Drug Strategy Committee are planning to have a list of services and relevant information for treatment inside the Naloxone kits that they provide.
In addition, on March 28th, nasal spray Naloxone will be available in our local pharmacies.
Barnes, being a champion of having Naloxone/Narcan more readily available, firmly believes that having the antidote will help to reduce the stigma that surrounds it, in turn saving lives.
There were also a number of teachers in attendance who encouraged parents to talk to their teachers, and find out out about different services and programs available to youth.
As Pelletier said, “We don’t want to think about it, but youth are affected by addictions too and we have to address that.”
If this community gathering has shown anything, it is that agencies care.
People within our community care.
We are hearing the stories. We are building the resources. We are pushing for more funding. We, as a community, are working towards healing.
The conversation will ensue. Processes are in the works in our community, both behind the scenes and on the front lines.
Don’t give up hope.
All panelists reiterated a few key words of encouragement.
“If the addict you love isn’t ready now, just be there. Don’t give up. There is always hope.”
Find out how you can get involved. Stay informed. Keep up with what these agencies are doing. Share the information with a friend. “Strike while the iron is hot,” as Murphy said.
If someone comes to you and they are ready for help, provide that support.
And remember that there are resources and tools in the Sault. There are people working hard to improve the services and we, as a collective, need to push government and hold them accountable in order to receive funding to meet our needs.
Some of the key partners were the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), APH, OATC/CATC (Ontario Addiction Treatment Centres, Canadian Addiction Treatment Centre), John Howard Society, Sault Area Hospital (SAH), The New Link, Algoma Family Services (AFS), the Indian Friendship Centre (IFC), and pharmacists from Independent Drug Marts Sault Ste. Marie.
(More information on services available and the work done in the community by these organizations will be released in some of our coming editions of SteelTown Pride, featuring support group services, Naloxone and addictions assistance services, as well as mental health and counselling services. Click here for food and NRC information, here for shelter information, and here for employment and financial resources).