Canada in crisis

Heather MorrisUnintentional drug overdoses have rapidly become a public health crisis in Canada. For the first time in more than four decades, life expectancy in Canada has stopped increasing—due largely to the soaring overdose deaths.

It’s a statistic that doesn’t shock PhD student and former public health nurse Heather Morris. “In 2018 there were 789 accidental deaths involving fentanyl in Alberta,” she says—an increase of more than 13,000 per cent since 2011. 

Public health experts are urging governments to be very involved and proactive in trying to address the problem. Improving access to evidence-based treatment programs and harm reduction measures, like supervised consumption services that help prevent overdoses, are critical components of this plan. 

Out of the 39 supervised consumption sites in Canada, only four are in Alberta. However, since opening in February 2018, Lethbridge’s facility has become not only the busiest in Canada, but likely the busiest of its kind anywhere in the world, with more than 20,000 visits per month.

Medically supervised consumption services can reduce many of the risks and health care costs associated with unsafe drug use. “But families can also be part of the solution,” says Morris, who received a WCHRI graduate studentship to explore this topic with her doctoral work.

“It’s an important perspective that hasn’t really been explored in research,” she says. “Often times we focus just on the patient experience and don’t include the family perspective—which is essential in terms of their involvement in trying to help support their child over the long term.”

Morris is collaborating with two prominent advocacy groups, mumsDU and Moms Stop The Harm, to examine the advocacy role that bereaved mothers play in addressing Canada's overdose crisis. 

Petra Schulz co-founded Moms Stop The Harm shortly after her son Danny died from an accidental fentanyl overdose at age 25 in 2014. “In the early days, there were 15 of us,” she says, “and now we have more than 1,000 members whose loved ones died from drug-related harms or who have struggled with substance use.”

Until now, there’s been no research that investigates the role parents play in addressing the overdose epidemic. With a goal of creating initial knowledge about the role of bereaved mothers in influencing drug policy reform, Morris hopes her research will inform the work of parent advocates, health professionals, and policy makers. 

“Is there a relationship between mother’s media advocacy and public support for harm reduction interventions, like supervised consumption sites?” asks Morris. “We expect that our findings will help our community partners by giving them additional information and skills to support their advocacy efforts.”

Schulz admits that it can be a difficult topic to talk about, but it’s necessary. “We’re all working together as part of a larger movement related to social justice and health because everyone is somehow touched by the overdose crisis in one way or another.”

Learn more about evidence-based approaches to combating Canada’s overdose crisis. 

Heather Morris’s graduate studentship has been funded by supporters of the Lois Hole Hospital for Women and the generosity of the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation through the Women and Children's Health Research Institute.



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