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

The emergency department at Peace Arch Hospital in White Rock, B.C., in July 2020. (Black Press Media)
Peace Arch Hospital Foundation reaches $12 million goal

New operating suites to open this fall

Peace Arch Hospital Foundation executive director Stephanie Beck speaks at a 2017 groundbreaking ceremony. In March 2020, she announced the Rapid Response Grant Program, aimed at providing financial assistance during the pandemic. (File photo)
Peace Arch Hospital Foundation launches youth program

Youth in Action designed for students who want to make an impact in their community

The RCMP logo is seen outside Royal Canadian Mounted Police “E” Division Headquarters, in Surrey, B.C., on April 13, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Surrey RCMP asking for dash-cam video of ‘suspicious incident’

Incident involves a newer model Toyota Rav 4 SUV

Elvira D’Angelo, 92, waits to receive her COVID-19 vaccination shot at a clinic in Montreal, Sunday, March 7, 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
‘It’s been a good week’: Tam hopeful on vaccines as pandemic anniversary nears

Tam says the addition of two new vaccines will help Canadians get immunized faster

Const. Allan Young. Photo: Abbotsford Police Department
Manslaughter charge laid in Nelson death of Abbotsford police officer

Allan Young died after an incident in downtown Nelson last summer

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a personal support worker at the Ottawa Hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020 in Ottawa. Doctors in Alberta have signed an open letter asking for prioritized vaccination of health-care staff who work directly with patients on dedicated COVID-19 units. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
COVID vaccines for seniors in B.C.: Here’s how to sign up

Seniors 90+, Indigenous seniors 65+ and Indigenous Elders can book starting March 8

The Kimber family of Boston Bar lost their home in a fire. Blaine Kimber’s daughter created a fundraiser to help rebuild the home with the goal of $100,000. (Screenshot/GoFundMe)
Fundraiser created for Boston Bar family that lost everything in weekend fire

Witnesses say the Kimber family escaped the fire without injury, but their home is a total loss

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

Sarah Cotton-Elliott said she believed her children took a back seat to arranging equal parenting

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Most Read