The Opioid Crisis

In 2020, the opioid crisis claimed the lives of 4,395 people in Canada. That’s equivalent to 12 opioid-related deaths per day. 1

The opioid crisis in this country is a serious issue – with accidental deaths and hospitalisations reaching epidemic-like proportions, it is impacting countless families across the country. 

Over the past few years, between January 2016 to March 2021, the opioid crisis has been responsible for 22,828 apparent opioid toxicity deaths and 26,134 opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations. 2

The Covid 19 pandemic has made this ongoing public health crisis worse; since the onset of the pandemic, 6,946 apparent opioid toxicity deaths occurred (April 2020 to March 2021), an 88% increase from the same period prior to the pandemic (April 2019 to March 2020 – 3,691 deaths). 3

Young people are at a particularly high risk of being harmed by opioids.

Adolescents and youth have accounted for close to 20% of preventable deaths due to opioids, and the number of hospitalization rates due to opioid poisoning have increased across all age groups – but mostly among youth aged 15 to 24 years of age.

This is an issue that is the result of a variety of complex factors, including; the over-prescription of opioid medications, an initial misunderstanding of the addictive risk of prescription opioids, the diversion of prescription opioids into the illegal drug market, the use of prescription opioids by individuals to whom they are not prescribed, and now, increasingly, a street drug supply that is tainted with fentanyl, fentanyl analogues and even more powerful opioids such as carfentanil.

There is no way of knowing for sure how much fentanyl is present in illegal drugs, it can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted – even a few grains can be deadly.  Anyone who uses these substances is at risk of being exposed to a fatal amount.

An accidental overdose can happen to anyone who uses substances, including those: 

  • Are struggling with a problematic substance use disorder
  • Use drugs occasionally in a recreational context
  • Are trying an illegal drug for the first time
  • Are not strictly following their health care professionals’ instructions

Risk factors

Parents can be aware of certain factors that may put a child at a greater risk for opioid dependence or addiction. Psychological, social, and biological risk factors like genetics, mental health, early life trauma, poverty, lack of secure housing are all factors that can increase the likelihood of young people using substances problematically and/or developing health problems associated with their use.

Other risk factors can be:

  • Personal history of substance use issues involving any substance, including alcohol
  • Family history of substance use problems or addiction
  • History of pre-adolescent sexual abuse or childhood trauma
  • Personal history of psychiatric problems

Risk factors do not determine a child’s destiny – but they can provide a general idea as to the likelihood of problematic drug use or an individual’s susceptibility to addiction. Understanding risk factors is important as youth who may have already used substances such as alcohol and cannabis may be at greater risk for experimentation with other drugs, including opioids.

If your child (or someone you know) uses opioids problematically or has an opioid use disorder, know the signs of overdose, have Naloxone on hand and ensure their safety by having a safety plan.

While not endorsing their use of these substances, discussing a safety plan with them as a precautionary measure can help reduce the chances of accidental overdose – for example, only consuming drugs at supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites. A safety plan can help to reduce the harms, as well as letting your child know that you care, and you want to stay involved in their life in a positive way.

Get more information and statistics on the opioid crisis in Canada on the Health Canada web page.

Stigma

It’s important to understand that a substance use disorder or addiction is not a choice, it is a treatable medical condition. 

So why aren’t people getting the help they or their families need? The role that stigma plays in this country’s opioid crisis cannot be underestimated.

“Stigma is at the heart of what’s keeping people from stepping forward and getting help and practicing harm reduction. It’s pervasive. The stigma surrounding opioid and other drug use problems eclipses anything we’ve seen in terms of the stigma associated with mental illness.”

Stephanie Knaak, Ph.D., Mental Health Commission of Canada

The stigma that surrounds substance use has isolated people who use drugs and has created significant barriers like shame and guilt that make it difficult for them to reach out for the treatment and support they need.  This often leads people to use drugs alone, which can in turn lead to overdosing with no one there to help them.

Even small changes can help reduce the cycle of stigma, such as using people-first language and taking the time to listen with compassion and without judgment. It is important for us as adult influencers to share this information with the young people in our lives.

By opening the conversation about stigma, it will help to empower all of us to think about how we treat those who suffer from some form of problematic drug use and take action to improve the situation.

To learn more about stigma, we encourage you to read the Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2019.