There were a few tears, many loved ones remembered, and the sense that as long as people are willing to talk, help is available.
Close to 50 people formed a “talking circle” at the cenotaph in Vernon to mark International Overdose Awareness Day Thursday, Aug. 31.
People passed a stone around the circle. While holding the stone, each person had the chance to say the name of a family or friend lost to drug poisoning, read a statement, or simply initiate a moment of silence.
In the first seven months of this year, 253 people have died from an overdose in the Southern Interior. That’s 27 more deaths compared to the same period in 2022.
In 2022, paramedics received 513 calls for overdose and drug poisoning and there were 40 opioid-related deaths in Vernon, grim statistics shared by the Upper Room Mission.
The toxic drug crisis is happening across the province. The BC Coroners Service said Tuesday that 198 people in B.C. died by overdose in the month of July. It’s the 13th consecutive month that more than 190 people have died from the toxic and unregulated drug supply in B.C.
Vernon Coun. Kelly Fehr, who has been outspoken about his own path to recovery from substance use and regularly attends events in the community that aim to reduce stigma, was at the talking circle.
“When I read this week that the leading cause of death in B.C. for people aged 10 to 59 is overdoses, I wanted to throw up,” Fehr said. “It’s absolutely horrifying. And the struggle in people’s lives — not just the people suffering from addiction, the families — the toll is tremendous.”
Fehr believes the decisions one has made or the substances they use don’t determine their value as a human being, and reducing the stigma around drug use opens up conversations that can help people who are suffering.
He says it’s not just homeless individuals who suffer from addiction.
“When you look at the majority of overdoses, (they) are men typically working in the construction trade,” he said.
“When people can’t talk to their own family members, their own spouses, their children, their parents, their friends, and be honest about the issues, without shame, and perhaps even without being told you need to stop, depending on what their behaviours are like … it’s going to continue to get worse.”
Fehr said he finds the rest of Vernon council to be supportive of the measures Interior Health is taking to curb the toxic drug crisis locally.
Interior Health has brought a number of new substance use-related programs to the Okanagan and to Vernon, specifically for youth.
The Canadian Mental Health Association also recently announced funding that will help them open up a new youth-focused program in town - Foundry.
“We just need to continue supporting the service providers that are providing and doing the work,” Fehr said. “Every citizen in our community can do their piece too by ensuring that their family and their friends know that they’re available to talk to if somebody’s struggling.”