The faces of two young Peninsula adults who died of fentanyl-related overdoses were front-and-centre at the White Rock Community Centre Wednesday evening.
The young man, dark-haired and smiling in the photo held up by presenter George Passmore, died last month. The young woman, also dark-haired and smiling in the photo held up by Passmore’s colleague Jennifer Hammersmark, died in February.
Both were alumni of Earl Marriott Secondary and in their 20s. Both died alone.
Passmore and Hammersmark were visibly distraught as they briefly spoke of the deaths. They shared the painful examples to drive home the reality of the overdose epidemic: it’s happening to people who call this community home, who are loved, had value and are missed.
And, it’s not stopping.
“There really isn’t any good reason why my son’s here and he’s not,” Hammersmark said of the young man who died.
He was her son’s best friend.
“I just want people to understand this is hitting good kids,” Hammersmark said. “These are faces of good kids from really good families.”
Passmore, who is Sources manager of substance-use services, told attendees the issue “has touched many people.”
The Stop Overdose Surrey event was the last of three in a series that also included presentations in Cloverdale and City Centre, organized by the Surrey Overdose Community Action Team.
More than three dozen people came out to White Rock’s event, a turnout that Passmore said “heartens me.”
“This is a topic that doesn’t get enough conversation going.”
Starting conversations was a goal of the series, and attendees Wednesday – a number of who were wiping tears throughout the two-hour presentation – were given much to think about.
Surrey, Passmore said, has seen an “exponential curve” in fentanyl-related deaths since 2012 – from three recorded that year, to 139 in 2017.
While there had been a sense of improvement in the crisis, he said, that trend has dissipated.
“Looks like it’s climbing a bit in the last couple of months,” he said. “This is not trending the way we want.”
Mark Goheen, Fraser Health’s clinical services lead for mental health and substance use, told attendees the overdose issue is not new, but it is getting “bigger, not better.”
“We’re on target for another dreadful year,” he said.
Both Goheen and Passmore said changing the conversation around substance use is critical to curbing deaths. Right now, the majority are happening in private residences, largely due to the stigma attached to addiction, as well as the blame and judgment associated with it.
The stigma is stopping many who need help from coming forward to ask for it, they said.
He cited a sign seen on a tow truck over the past two Christmas seasons as an example of the type of conversation around addiction that needs to change. The sign reads, ‘GIVE ’EM ALL FENTANYL.’
“What he’s saying is, kill them all,” Goheen said. “We’re still in a society that tolerates this kind of thing.”
Passmore challenged attendees to each host three conversations this week to help change the approach to addiction and build “important” connections.
A woman who spoke of her son’s overdose-death shared one example of how starting such a conversation can change a life. She explained that four weeks after her son died, her husband opened up about it on Facebook. The post led a distant relative to share it, declaring his own substance-use issues. That relative is now two weeks into recovery, and “I’m going to see him tomorrow.”