First responders join families, friends and volunteers in Centennial Square on International Overdose Awareness Day in 2017, to honour those lives lost to opioid-related deaths. Photo contributed

‘Stigma is on every level of our society’: Victoria to mark International Overdose Awareness Day

Centennial Square gathering Aug. 29 to remember, but more importantly, to educate

Almost 4,000 Canadians died from opioid-related deaths in 2017.

That statistic – released by the federal government in June – shows roughly 1,470 of those deaths took place in B.C. Both numbers are up from previous years and continue to climb.

Robbie Cunningham is one of the 2,978 people whose lives were cut short by an accidental opioid overdose in 2016.

He died alone, says his mother Jenny Howard, just like the 88 per cent of people who are found using what she calls a “poisoned drug supply” indoors, also often alone.

“He couldn’t share that he was struggling with heroin,” she says. “That’s got to change.”

In her healing, Howard found solace in reaching out to other families who had experienced a similar tragedy. “That’s how I found support and understanding for what he was going through.”

On Aug. 29, to align with International Overdose Awareness Day, Howard will gather with families, friends, partners and others at Centennial Square for an evening devoted to remembering those lost to the opioid crisis, but also to educate the public.

Attendees from last year’s Victoria event for International Overdose Awareness Day placed messages on origami to loved ones lost to the opioid crisis. Photo contributed

“Robbie didn’t grow up saying ‘I want to be an addict.’ That wasn’t in his life plan,” Howard explains.

The mission: to move people past the stereotypical language associated with drug use, and to reframe addiction as a medical health condition similar to any other health condition one struggles with.

“It’s going to take time,” Howard says. “Stigma is on every level of our society. It’s on a political level and that’s why we’re not seeing huge change. We see what it took to legalize marijuana. We’re pushing for decriminalization [of opioids] for a safer drug supply.”

The event, a collaboration between Moms Stop The Harm, and the South Island Community Overdose Response Network, is part of a global day to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of drug-related death.

The response to last year’s event to commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day was “overwhelming” says Jenny Howard, an organizer who lost her 24-year-old son Robbie Cunningham to an opioid overdose in May, 2016. Photo contributed

A collection of community agencies will be represented as well as a storyboard project called “We Are Human” featuring the stories and images of loved ones lost. It puts a human face to the struggle, Howard says.

Attendees are encouraged to bring photos of their loved ones for a memorial table that will be created, while naloxone kits and training will be available for free.

“Youth are savvy about what’s out there,” she says. “What they’re not savvy about is how toxic the drugs are now that are on the street.”

Last year, the response to the event was “overwhelming” Howard says, adding that when it came time to call for volunteers this year, each one came with the story of how they had been personally affected by the overdose crisis.

The evening will also include a call to action and rally followed by a candlelight vigil.

“I lost my ability to fight for Robbie but I’m fighting for another mom’s child,” Howard says. “These are preventable deaths at the end of the day.”

The International Overdose Awareness Day event runs from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Aug. 29 at Centennial Square.

kristyn.anthony@vicnews.com


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