Island Health is taking steps to address the overdose crisis on Vancouver Island.

This month they are kicking off an awareness campaign geared towards men to help prevent overdose deaths and to encourage them to break the silence about their drug use.

 Last year in the Island Health region, 263 people died from illicit drug toxicity. Of those people, 225 were men (85%) – and 126 of them were in a private residence when they overdosed.

Throughout the 8-week campaign, outreach will be done through social media, radio and streaming messages, and ads in transit shelters.

Vista Radio had the chance to speak with Island Health Medical Health Officer Dr. Sandra Allison.

She says this campaign’s main goal is to raise awareness that many of those dying from the overdose crisis are the men in our lives. 

“We’ve been working on this campaign for a while and it’s based on the evidence. It’s based on what we know about the overdose and the burden. And the burden falls most heavily on men, Specifically men who are using alone and so the campaign here is seeking to expose, shall I say, the burden of the overdose and the drug poisoning deaths on men and men who use alone. 

“And the purpose of the campaign, not just exposing but also really prompting discussions in our community where people maybe, will see these ads or the campaign and start to have conversations with their loved ones about drug use and about using alone. And that normalizing pain in our lives and that we relieve pain in different ways and some of them can lead to fatal overdose deaths like this.”

“Really hoping with a  campaign that puts the focus on the most important people in our lives and that’s the men in our families, then they are dying from using drugs alone. So that’s really what we’re hoping to do today,” explained Allison. 

Data from the BC Coroners Service (Illicit Drug Overdose Deaths in BC) shows that half of the men who died from toxic drugs were employed and of those, 55 percent worked in the trades and transport industry.

We asked Dr. Allison how Island Health plans to reach out to that demographic specifically and address the stigma around using drugs.

“If not this campaign then some of our other partnered work. The work in partnership with the Vancouver Island Construction Association to really understand from the members of the construction association what are some of the drivers and some of the barriers, to make sure people are using drugs safely if they need to use or accessing care and being able to be honest and not ashamed of their drug use and their pain.”

She told Vista Radio that if you know someone who is using drugs, simply reaching out to them could be a great start in getting them the help they need.

“Certainly conversations and acknowledging that people have pain is an excellent place to start. We know that in that demographic, men at the peak of their life working in construction or labour or the transportation industry…those individuals are experiencing a lot of distress in their lives, some of them, and then they turn to using substances.”

“It’s a campaign like this that we really want people to be reaching out to the loved ones in their lives and saying ‘listen if you’re having pain, I know that everybody has pain sometimes and however you’re treating it, I want you to know that I care about you and I don’t want to lose you and I don’t want to lose you to a toxic drug overdose, please don’t use alone’.” 

She says this campaign is focused on men, because not only are they the ones dying, but most of the time they are the ones who won’t reach out for help if they need it. 

“What we do know about men’s health behavior and seeking care is that men are often reluctant to seek care for average health issues. We can only imagine that something that’s shameful or stigmatizing like drug use makes it doubly hard to address with a health provider.”

“Men supporting men is one of the most important things we would like out of this campaign. And also open conversations around substance use. We know people use substances, we should not be afraid of that. We want to support people and stop people from dying.”

Dr. Allison also says the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped B.C’s case either.

 “I feel like there are a couple of aspects to the pandemic that has exacerbated the issue. One of them is the isolation that we really need to protect individuals’ health and so our public health measure is to really decrease your social interactions. That can lead to people being isolated and maybe using alone.”

“When we closed the borders with respect to the open transfer of substances maybe across international borders I suspect that led to a shift in the drug supply within the country that possibly has led to more deaths.

There have been over 7,000 overdose deaths in B.C since 2016, which is more per year than car crashes, suicides, and homicides combined.

Listen to the full interview with Island Health Medical Health Officer Dr. Sandra Allison below: