Harm reduction workers face burnout amid dual crisis: ‘Too emotionally charged’ – National

Battered not only by the current overdose crisis, but also by the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, harm reduction workers across Canada are grappling with burnout, experts say.

“We are going to lose a generation of harm reduction workers to burnout due to the relentless nature of this crisis,” Gillian Kolla, postdoctoral fellow at the Canadian Institute for Human Rights Research, told Global News. of Substance Use from the University of British Columbia.

“People who care deeply about working with people who use drugs, who have been in this field for a very long time, find that they can’t do this job because it’s so emotionally charged,” he said. she declared.

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A 2022 report from the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction found that the drug toxicity crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are largely responsible for the higher levels of burnout faced by those who work in the field of harm reduction.

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“I love my job and at the same time wish it didn’t have to exist. I couldn’t imagine doing nothing about the overdose crisis. It’s an honor to be paid for something I’m passionate about, but also difficult to be engaged in what seems like an endless battle with governments to value the lives of people like me,” noted a worker from harm reduction in the report.

A study published last year looking specifically at Toronto also found profound impacts on harm reduction workers.

“It’s important to recognize that some of the emotions we have as humans in response to seeing other humans suffer, and the loss and grief that comes with it, are a normal reaction,” Kolla said.

“The scale of the crisis is the problem.”

COVID-19 and the overdose crisis in Canada

In recent years, the overdose crisis has continued to escalate in Canada as the supply of toxic drugs increasingly spreads across the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder for people who use drugs to access safe supplies and has heightened feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety.

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According to the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction report, fentanyl appeared in 55% of toxicity deaths in 2019, 80% in 2020, and 87% in 2021.

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“It’s important to recognize that the overdose crisis is caused by fentanyl that has leaked into the unregulated drug supply,” according to Kolla.

And, although harm reduction workers were already suffering from burnout before COVID-19, the pandemic has only “exacerbated” the problem, she said.

“It is not just the isolation of the COVID pandemic, but it is the isolation of the COVID pandemic that has come about after years of neglecting this issue. It is the enormous economic deprivation that often exists within communities of people who are most affected by overdoses. It is systemic anti-Black and Indigenous racism that exacerbates the history of colonialism in Canada,” Kolla said.

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Between January 2016 and March 2022, there were a total of 30,843 deaths from apparent opioid toxicity in Canada, according to a September 2022 report on the opioid overdose epidemic written by special advisers working with the Agency. of public health in Canada.

In the first two years of the pandemic, the country saw a 91% increase in these types of deaths, compared to the previous two years, according to federal data.

In total, 90% of all apparent accidental deaths related to opioid toxicity occurred in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario, although high rates were also seen in other regions, including the Yukon.

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“I am aware that my personal stress leaves me less to give or offer at work. I have to be very measured with my energy and keep it where I can. I can’t stretch as much as before COVID,” one harm reduction worker said in the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction report.

In Ontario alone, between February and December 2020, there was a 79% increase in monthly opioid-related deaths, according to the province’s public health agency.

“COVID could have been an opportunity for our society to finally appreciate harm reduction because for a long time harm reduction has been a bit gross to people,” said Daniel Bear, a professor in the faculty of social and social services. community at Humber College, to Global News.

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“And the government’s drug policy response is totally inadequate. Full stop. People don’t need to die. The fact that people are dying is a sign of the failure of our system,” he said.

How to reduce stigma?

Reducing the stigma that some have around drugs is also important, Kolla says, to help with Canada’s overdose crisis and reduce stress on harm reduction workers.

“We didn’t have as full of a response as we had hoped because of the stigma around drug use,” she said.

“It’s also very important to recognize that even though we invented the mentality of the war on drugs, the mentality of just saying no to drugs, these types of messages have actually been inherently very, very harmful.”

For many, according to Bear, this stigma stems from patterns of prohibition.

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“It’s not like the stigma of people who use drugs has gone away,” he said.

Kolla added that harm reduction workers also need specialized mental health supports, while Bear pointed to decriminalization as a key part of the solution.

“We need decriminalization to allow people to have the same protections, concerns and care from their government, no matter what they do or what they use. A secure supply is what we expect in a society, whether it is beer, chicken breasts or heroin,” he said.

“You may not like harm reduction, but it will save someone’s life.”

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.


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