Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions in B.C. (B.C. Government photo)

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions in B.C. (B.C. Government photo)

MALCOLMSON: 2020 left us grappling with overdose tragedy and working for change

B.C.’s Addictions Minister reflects on visit to Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver

By Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions

Where were you in the year 2020? This will be a question asked around dinner tables for years to come.

Some people will recall the challenges of working from home while raising kids. Others will reflect on how difficult being on the frontlines was. Too many will remember losing a loved one to overdose, because 2020 was the year when illicit street drugs became more toxic and dangerous than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on people’s physical and mental health, and underserved populations have suffered the most.

In B.C., 1,716 people lost their life to overdose in 2020 – that’s almost five people a day. Before the pandemic, overdose deaths dropped for the first time in years, but COVID-19 has made everything worse. One of the most insidious things has been a disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs, leading to dramatically more lethal drugs on our streets. Add that to the stigma that drives people to use alone, on top of social isolation, and you have a recipe for a tragic surge in overdose deaths.

READ MORE: With 1,716 deaths, 2020 deadliest year of overdose crisis in B.C. history

On a virtual tour of the Overdose Prevention Society in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, I met Sam, a 29-year-old supervisor who is in recovery and working to help others. Sam connects with about 100 people a day who drop by for addiction services, food and support, and says many who use drugs just want to be heard and have a friend.

Behind each overdose statistic is a person with a story.

Addiction is not a moral failing; it is a health condition. Whether a person has a heart problem, diabetes or a substance use disorder, they deserve access to dignified, barrier-free health care.

The overdose crisis requires urgent action – people’s lives depend on it. We are working as quickly as possible to patch holes in the system and build something better.

Separating people from toxic street drugs is the first step to saving lives. Today, 23,000 British Columbians are receiving medications to treat opioid addiction – more than ever before. B.C. is training registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe these medications to help more people. This work is the first of its kind in Canada.

We are doubling youth treatment beds and adding 100 more publicly funded adult treatment beds to ensure help is available when someone is ready to take that step.

And we are breaking new ground on increasing access to safer pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs, and working with the federal government to decriminalize possession of small amounts of controlled substances – as called for by police chiefs and others – to reduce stigma and remove barriers in the way of people getting help.

When people ask me where I was in 2020, I will be proud to say I joined a team of passionate people like Sam working to save lives across the province. 2020 was a tragic year, but there is reason for hope as we push forward and innovate to build the future of mental health and addictions care British Columbians deserve.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

opioid crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Murder charge laid in February 2020 stabbing death of Smithers man

Michael Egenolf is charged with the second-degree murder of Brodie Cumiskey

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 90+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Coastal GasLink begins COVID screening of pipeline workers

Construction is once again ramping up following Northern Health approval of COVID management plan

FILE – A COVID-19 vaccine being prepared. (Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing)
B.C. seniors 80 years and older to get COVID vaccine details over next 2 weeks: Henry

Province is expanding vaccine workforce as officials ramp up age-based rollout

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

AstraZeneca’s vaccine ready for use at the vaccination centre in Apolda, Germany, Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Reichel/dpa via AP
National panel advises against using Oxford-AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine on seniors

NACI panel said vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are preferred for seniors ‘due to suggested superior efficacy’

A public health order has extended the types of health care professionals who can give the COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo courtesy of CHI Franciscan)
‘It’s great that midwives are included’ in rollout of B.C.’s COVID vaccine plan, says college

The order will help the province staff the mass vaccination clinics planned for April

Shipping containers are seen at the Fairview Cove Container Terminal in Halifax on Friday, Aug. 25, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Canadian economy contracted 5.4 per cent in 2020, worst year on record

Drop was largely due to shutdowns in the spring as COVID began to spread

The Nanaimo Clippers in action at Frank Crane Arena in early 2020. (News Bulletin file photo)
Nanaimo Clippers for sale, owner says hockey won’t be back to normal any time soon

Wes Mussio says he’s had numerous inquiries about the junior A club already

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation, May 8, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s weekend COVID-19 cases: 532 Saturday, 508 Sunday, 438 Monday

Fraser Health still has most, eight more coronavirus deaths

B.C. Attorney General David Eby speaks in the legislature, Dec. 7, 2020. Eby was given responsibility for housing after the October 2020 provincial election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends COVID-19 rent freeze again, to the end of 2021

‘Renoviction’ rules tightened, rent capped to inflation in 2022

Face mask hangs from a rear-view mirror. (Black Press image)
B.C. CDC unveils guide on how to carpool during the pandemic

Wearing masks, keeping windows open key to slowing the spread of COVID-19

Churches, including Langley’s Riverside Calvary Church, are challenging the regulations barring them from holding in-person worship services during COVID-19. (Langley Advance Times file)

Most Read