Jennifer Howard says every month when the toll of overdose-death statistics is released by the B.C. Coroners Service, she is swept by two major reactions.
“It triggers my loss of Robbie and makes me think of the tragedy in that family, of their pain,” said Howard, who lost her son Robert Cunningham to a fentanyl overdose in May 2016. He was 24, and died alone in his Shawnigan Lake apartment, having been introduced to drugs about six months before.
“On another level, it makes me so angry to see the number of deaths increase when we know how to solve this problem,” said Howard, citing better drug policy and treatment options as first steps. Tackling the misplaced moral judgment associated with drug use and addiction is another, she said.
With 640 deaths in the first five months of this year, 2017 is set to eclipse the record 967 overdose deaths in B.C. last year. More than 250 people on Vancouver Island have died of drug overdoses since the beginning of 2016. The statistics for June deaths will be released by the coroner next week.
Howard is part of a growing army of parents affected by the overdose crisis and advocating for change, not just for their own children, but for others.
“There is no handbook for parents supporting a child with addictions and mental-health issues. You learn in the trenches and you come together,” said Howard.
She was joined at a downtown coffee shop by other parents helping to organize Overdose Awareness Month in Victoria, which kicks off Monday at 5 p.m. in Centennial Square with a community photo of anyone affected by the crisis — families, first-responders, front-line workers — and photos of those they’ve lost. On Aug. 31, Overdose Awareness Day will be marked across the country with events in Victoria and Nanaimo.
The parents are part of an organization called Moms Stop the Harm, which has grown from three mothers from the Island and Alberta in 2016 to hundreds of parents across the country.
Nancy Murphy thanked Howard for her advocacy.
“You’re fighting for the memory of your son, but you’re also fighting for my daughter, and that’s a beautiful connection to have,” she said.
Murphy’s daughter, 32, is in hospital, awaiting a spot in supportive housing with a treatment program. Her health spiralled downward three years ago when her partner died by suicide and she started using drugs to cope with the trauma.
“She said it was the only thing that calmed her mind, the flashbacks,” said Murphy, who put her doula career on hold to be available for her daughter, a former social worker.
“I’m like a crisis manager,” she said, noting daily calls searching for treatment beds, weekly visits by paramedics and more than a dozen recovery attempts. Her daughter has recently had success with an opioid-replacement therapy program.
Murphy said one of the greatest barriers to getting help for her daughter has been the attitudes of those she has needed the most.
“The stigma has been the biggest thing … being told by medical staff she’s wasting their time and this idea that they’re going to die anyway, so stop wasting resources,” said Murphy, adding her daughter wants to get better to help others.
Derek Peach lost his daughter, Judy Peach, in January at the age of 50. She struggled with addiction since 1998, after falling off a balcony and being prescribed opiates for pain. Her addiction led her to leave her husband and child, and spend years on and off the streets.
“She’d surface every now and again,” said Peach. “But we’d alternate between ‘How can I help you?’ and ‘I’m so mad you can’t stay here.’ It’s a horrible thing for a parent.”
By 2014, Judy had moved in with her mom and sister on a farm in Nanaimo and seemed to be doing better — minus a few setbacks. She got her own place, a small trailer near friends, was managing her finances and became involved in local theatre.
“On the opening night of her play, she didn’t show up. The director sent the police to her place and she was dead,” said Peach, who uses advocacy to cope with the loss. He wants to see the public address the dangers of drug use, addiction and overdose with the same openness that curbed drinking-and-driving fatalities 30 years ago.
“When I was a schoolteacher, kids would say they could call their parents if anyone was drinking for a ride, no questions asked,” he said. “But I bet kids aren’t picking up the phone and saying: ‘We’re injecting drugs and I don’t think we’re safe.’ And why not?”
Leslie McBain is one of the founders of Moms Stop the Harm. Her son, Jordan Miller, died at 24 in February 2014 with a mix of drugs in his system. He also struggled with addiction after being prescribed opioids for a workplace injury.
Since his death, McBain — who lives on Pender Island — has watched the overdose crisis worsen and found herself a leader among parents advocating for change.
“It’s a gang nobody wants to be in, but we’re finally being listened to,” said McBain, who advocates for safe, controlled drugs and a devaluing of the street trade, as well as increased access to treatment and social supports, and wants to see a national anti-stigma campaign.
She has attended meetings on the crisis in Washington, D.C., and at the United Nations in New York, met with the prime minister and federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, and was recently hired to lead a family-engagement program for the B.C. Centre on Substance Abuse.
“People ask me if I’m fighting for my son and I say: ‘No, I’m fighting for yours,’ ” she said.
Her hope for Overdose Awareness Month is that people who are judgmental or dismissive do the research on what an opioid addiction does to the body and how difficult it is to overcome.
This, McBain hopes, “will lead to a paradigm shift in thinking and help them find compassion.”