Council approves grants addressing stigma surrounding substance use and mental health

April 18, 2018 | Safer Communities

Today, Vancouver City Council approved two grants that will address the deeply entrenched stigma associated with substance use that is contributing to the ongoing overdose crisis. Stigma is a significant barrier for people trying to access health, treatment, and harm reduction services, and is a key factor driving this opioid crisis. Stigma is reinforced when drug use is treated as a criminal, rather than health issue, and a comprehensive effort is needed to address stigma and save lives.

“I am pleased that Council approved two new grants that will strengthen our efforts to combat the stigma of drug addiction,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson. “Stigma is driving people to use drugs alone at home and, because of that fear and isolation, hundreds of our neighbours, friends, and family members are dying. We need to treat drug addiction as a health issue with enhanced prevention and treatment options, coupled with a lifesaving shift to ensure people can access safe prescription drugs rather than using deadly street drugs. Thank you to Watari and Megaphone for stepping up and doing great work to help us fight stigma and save lives.”

Council has approved $85,000 to Street Corner Media Foundation (“Megaphone”) to develop a speakers’ bureau focused on supporting people with lived experience and raising awareness across Vancouver. Watari Research Association (“Watari Counselling and Support Services Society”) was also awarded $15,000 to create an updated and comprehensive resource guide to help Vancouverites better navigate access to mental health and addictions services. The funding for both grants comes from 2017 Contingency Budget for the Opioid Crisis, of which $100,000 was previously approved for de-stigmatization programs. The organizations and programs receiving the grants were recommended by City Staff and identified in collaboration with the City’s People with Lived Experience Advisory Committee on Mental Health and Substance Use.

"In the last two years, the overdose crisis has fueled an extraordinary amount of loss in our province,” said Jessica Hannon, Executive Director of Megaphone. “To make change in the face of that loss we must address its root causes, including stigma. The speakers bureau project is about amplifying the stories of those who experience the crisis firsthand. Listening to those stories and understanding those experiences is the first step to countering stigma.”

“Stigma is incredibly damaging. It not only shaped a negative way I looked at other people but also the way I viewed myself,” said Colin Ross, a member of the City’s People With Lived Experience Advisory Committee. “I spent years avoiding help because I thought I was weak and useless, when I was simply struggling with some difficult issues. Life is hard and no one deserves to feel shame for needing a little support. Addiction is difficult. The way we shame and ultimately shun those immersed in it makes it devastating.”

The City will continue to address stigma and discrimination through its work with the Province’s Overdose Emergency Response Centre’s Vancouver Community Action Team, which had its first meeting on April 16th. In addition, the City has repeatedly called on senior levels of government to take further action to mitigate the impacts of the crisis, including:

  • Expanding addiction treatment, including injectable options;
  • Increasing the number of overdose prevention sites to communities in need;
  • Providing overdose prevention services in supportive housing;
  • Expanding drug checking services;
  • Providing MSP coverage for evidence-based, psychosocial addictions treatment; and
  • Implementing a multi-sectoral task force to explore decriminalization, moving towards a regulatory framework for all drugs and, taking immediate steps to support a public health approach to drug use

Despite significant efforts from the City, the Province, and our partners, this crisis continues to affect Vancouver at an alarming rate. The immediacy of this crisis underscores the need to work together on bold approaches, such as addressing the limitations of our national drug policy to reduce stigma and supporting a public health approach.

For the week of April 9 to April 15, Vancouver Police Department (VPD) reported six suspected overdose deaths, up from five reported the previous week. For the same period, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services (VFRS) reported 105 overdose calls, roughly the same as the 106 recorded last week.

Vancouver has seen a suspected 97 overdose deaths in the city so far this year. VFRS receives an average of 105 overdose calls each week.

The funding for these grants will complement the current efforts of the Province, Vancouver Coastal Health, and community members to address stigma, change the conversation around mental health and substance use, and enhance systems of care.

In 2017, 365 Vancouver residents died from an overdose—an average of one death a day. Across the country, nearly 3000 people died from opioids in 2016, and the Public Health Agency of Canada expects more than 4000 opioid-related deaths to occur in 2017. It is anticipated that opioid-related deaths in Canada will surpass those caused by motor vehicle accidents, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.