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GUEST COLUMN: Compassion is key to dealing with the opioid crisis

Lana Greene is a member of Moms Stop the Harm
Lana Greene shares a photo of her son TJ from when he was chosen as the captain of the hockey team in his younger days. (Submitted Photo/Lana Greene)

Back on Aug. 31, 2021, we held an overdose awareness day event at the George Little Park. We, as in me, a member of the Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH) group, along with the Kermode Friendship Society, Northern Health, Ksan Society, and First Nations Health Authority.

I put my son TJ’s face on the advertising and it was assumed that he passed away from an overdose, when in fact he passed away in the “care” of a remand facility. He was put in an isolation cell for 23.5 hours a day and had been requesting psychiatric help as well as medication to help him (something several others in their care are claiming as well).

He never gained access to either in four months and one week until on Jan. 11 they say he committed suicide. My son did not want to die. TJ was 23-years-old and had suffered three concussions in his teens. He began to suffer with depression and bipolar with manic episodes. Then came the substance use.

TJ was an athlete, he was so funny, very loving and soft hearted. He was chosen to be captain in his second year of bantam hockey and his team made provincials that year. None of his concussions were suffered in hockey by the way. As his mental illness progressed with self medication using substances, I many many times tried to advocate for him to gain access to mental health treatment but was unsuccessful.

When I became a member of the MSTH group I learned that I’m one of thousands of moms here in Canada saying this exact same thing. My son faced much stigma and felt great shame for his behaviour. He needed help not punishment. There are a multitude of reasons people have come to this point in life: trauma, brain injury, genetic disposition, mental illness, one bad choice, etc.

What I want you to know is each person you see has a story, quite possibly one that would break your heart. A newspaper article isn’t big enough to share TJ’s story but this is a tiny piece of it. The reason I put my son’s face on the advertising is because I consider it to be a substance use related death. That’s what we at MSTH call it. Also because I can’t survive this with out advocating to break the stigma that sadly is very alive and well and giving voice to his beautiful life. A voice that he had lost before he left.

When someone is suffering this way and behaving this way they are judged harshly and often suffer more trauma along this painful journey. This is not an easy journey and many many people are facing it. I once never would have believed that this could happen, what I’ve learned is it can and does happen. It happens very often to the best of people. We in B.C. are now losing on average 6.5 people a day just to overdose, 17 a day in Canada. It is the leading cause of death for young people here in B.C. Predominately young men, shame and stigma is in the way of accessing the help needed. Shame and stigma is literally killing people. It’s the most painful thing in the world to watch your child suffer and not be able to help them.

Changes are needed here in Canada or we will continue to lose more young people at the alarming rate that we are. The people you see suffering today this way are your community members and surrounding area communities members. What is needed is a compassionate evidence based approach. Please if you never come to a place of compassion and understanding just stay silent. Silently thank your lucky stars that you don’t need to. I will leave you with this, mental illness is not a personal failure and substance use is not a character flaw. Compassion is the only way to create safe spaces for people to heal. Healing is what is needed.