Skip to main content

Amid overdose crisis, dialogue on drug use critical, addiction experts say

Donna May, whose daughter died in August 2012 at age 34 is seen at her home in Mississauga, Ontario.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

As deaths from drug overdose cut a swath through every province, parents are agonizing over what they can do to protect and support their children.

Whether their loved ones are experimenting with or abusing substances, addiction experts say there is no easy answer, as each situation is unique. But there are things on which most agree: don't blame, don't shame, don't slam the door, or be naive.

Kids are surrounded by drugs. Peer pressure is intense. And parents need to be on high alert because "it's unrealistic to think children won't try drugs," says Donna May, a Mississauga-based harm-reduction advocate, whose 34-year-old daughter Jac, the mother of three girls, died of an opioid overdose in 2012.

Story continues below advertisement

"We know more people are dying from first-time and recreational use. When I first got involved in harm reduction, it was all about addiction," says May, whose daughter battled drug addiction for years before contracting a flesh-eating disease from unsafe needles.

"Back then, I don't know if anyone stood out for me who died from occasional use. Now, it's all the time," says May, a founding member of mumsDU (moms united and mandated to saving the lives of Drug Users), a coalition of Canadian mothers who have lost sons or daughters to overdose and other drug-related harms. "We're dealing with an opioid overdose crisis."

An April 29 column in The Globe and Mail reported that, in 2017, between six and seven Canadians lose their lives to drug overdose every day. The Office of the Chief Coroner of Ontario says someone in the province dies of an opioid overdose every 13 hours. Increasingly in both Ontario and British Columbia, an unregulated, illicitly produced opioid fentanyl is responsible. The BC Coroners Service says 120 overdose deaths occurred across the province in March, bringing the three-month total to 347 – on track to surpass the record 922 illicit drug deaths across British Columbia last year.

Hakique Virani, medical director of the Metro City Medical Clinic in Edmonton, says parents are in an unenviable position. "We can't expect parents to automatically start thinking rationally when they're in the difficult position of trying to figure out what is best for their child," Virani says. "They, too, are struggling and trying to reconcile resentments with what their child is doing. They are struggling with the two feelings: one of intense love for their child, and the other, is intense dislike with their behaviour. It's not easy to grapple with."

Virani, an assistant clinical professor at University of Alberta's department of medicine, says he is increasingly alarmed by the rise of fentanyl and carfentanil cases they are seeing at the clinic. Fentanyl – a synthetic opioid detected in cocaine, crack, MDMA (ecstasy), crystal meth, heroin and fake oxycodone and Percoce – can be fatal, even in a few grains. It is 40-50 times more toxic than heroin; and carfentanil is many times stronger than that. "Fentanyl is pretty much all we see and carfentanil is beginning to play a huge role in Alberta," Virani says. "Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 11, 2017, 15 out of 51 fentanyl deaths detected carfentanil."

Virani says he and his staff are always relieved to see a young person come into the clinic with a parent. "Parents are on the front line, and it gives us the opportunity to explain to them what's going on, and help reconcile their resentments with what their child is doing. Our job is to offer support to the parent and the child."

As unpleasant as it may be, he says parents have to be around if their child is using substances and they have to stress how important it is to never use alone. "Both our jobs is to offer youth help and/or medication without judgment."

Story continues below advertisement

At Toronto's Renascent treatment facility – which offers an abstinence-based recovery program for people with addictions – Sunil Boodhai, manager of the family program, says addiction is a family disease. "We help parents to understand that addiction is a disease, just like cancer or diabetes. It's something neither they, nor their child, wanted for themselves and can control. Our job is to give them both hope.

"If someone refuses treatment, the parent may have to stand back and allow the child to make a choice and suffer the consequences. Sometimes,that is what it takes to give them the motivation to change.

"We call that loving detachment and it's the hardest thing for parents to accept. But, of all the people I've counselled, the one thing those in recovery say is that they always had someone to talk to," Boodhai says. "I can't underscore how important it is to keep the pathway open back to the family home – even if it's for Sunday dinner."

May agrees. "As a parent, you have to remember it's not about you. It's about them. Communicate your expectations, but put the emphasis on asking your child what they want for themselves."

British Columbia's Leslie McBain also lost a child to opioid overdose: Her son, Jordan Miller, died in 2014 at the age of 25. "As hard as it may be, don't give up on your loved one," she now advises other parents.

"If you get angry or judgmental, the child will shut down. That's just the way life is," McBain says. "The conversation has to be calm and measured. No blame. No shame. No stigmatizing. But it also has to be straight talk on what can happen."

Story continues below advertisement

McBain, who is a harm-reduction advocate, also advocates naloxone kits be carried by anyone using, or taking care of, someone using drugs. "It's saving lives." (Naloxone is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose).

For parents of younger children who want to have a talk that helps prevent drug use, experts stress again the importance of being conversational, not critical.

"Talk about what you're reading or seeing in the news and tell them why it's concerning," says Rob Boyd, program director of the harm-reduction Oasis Program at Ottawa's Sandy Hill Community Centre. "Ask their thoughts. Encourage an open dialogue. And, as they age, watch for signs and symptoms of substance use."

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading…

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.