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Consistent harm reduction messaging required to address addiction, Sundre therapist says

From provincial to municipal governments, addiction communication should be on the same page

SUNDRE — From the top down, public messaging pertaining to harm reduction strategies involved in the equation to address addiction must be consistent, a local mental health therapist says.

Paul Shippy, who between time spent in Olds and Sundre has a little more than 10 years of experience in his field, recently addressed the municipal council to encourage officials to be mindful about keeping the issue front and centre when developing plans and projects for the community.

Alberta’s premier Jason Kenney has previously expressed opposition to safe consumption sites and courted controversy by saying they facilitate and encourage addiction by “helping addicts inject poison into their bodies.”

“Enabling someone to commit slow motion suicide — to throw their life away — is not compassion,” Kenney said early on after the UCP formed government.

The government has instead attempted to emphasize more of a recovery-based approach to addressing addiction.  

However, evidence indicates the facilities are a crucial factor in not only substantially reducing drug-related overdose deaths and the spread of diseases transmitted by shared needles, but also providing compassionate and professional care that increases the chances of connecting patients with recovery services they might otherwise never know about, let alone access.  

According to the provincial government’s own statistics, the number of Albertans who in 2021 died as a result of drug poisoning is up to 1,758, more than double the amount recorded in 2019.

In a follow-up interview with the Albertan, Shippy said that Alberta Health Services works from a harm reduction model.

“You can’t do harm reduction practices without safe consumption sites,” said Shippy. “And if the government is saying things that are contrary to harm reduction, then they’re saying things that are contrary to AHS, which is who they fund. It’s a contradiction that is confusing.”

Consistency in messaging when attempting to address a social issue is important and flows from the provincial government’s top officials all the way down to municipal leaders, he said.

But whether there is a substantiated need for any safe consumption sites in the region remains to be determined, he said.

“I can’t say specifically,” he said, when asked from his perspective as a mental health therapist who works with some clients that struggle with addiction if such a facility would benefit the area. “It’s driven by need. So, it’s about always assessing what the needs are and coming up with appropriate solutions.”

However, the advice and knowledge of experts in the field who have hands-on experience of what’s happening on the ground should be guiding that process, he said.

“Ideally though, those who are making the decisions would inquire with those who are actually doing the work at the frontlines,” he said. “Ask the frontline people what they think.”

When asked his reaction to recent news that AHS is looking to roll back wages of health-care staff including social workers by as much as nearly 11 per cent, Shippy said he had not yet heard about that development but added he wasn’t particularly surprised.

“Ultimately, you have a lot of social workers, mental health therapists, addictions therapists, doing their best with sometimes not a lot. So, it’s always frustrating when we hear this,” he said.  

Throughout the pandemic, there has been no shortage of messaging from the government hailing health-care workers as heroes, he said.

“And here is how we show our appreciation, by rolling back wages,” he said. “It’s not overly surprising. It’s always frustrating.”

Health-care workers on the frontlines of the rising tide of drug-related overdose deaths are the first line of defence, but the rest of society also has an important part to play, he said.

“Mental health therapists are often hired and put in a position to help fix some of the ailments of society. But ultimately we, as therapists, are only a small part of that,” he said. “How do we take better care of each other?”  

That was part of the underlying message Shippy said he wanted to convey to the municipality.

Most of the people he works with are going through some sort of issue related to stress — regardless of whether that anxiety stems from mental, emotional, financial, family, or relationship struggles or hardships.  

“The problems are varied,” he said.

And although there is no silver bullet solution that resolves every issue every time, a common underlying theme that improves the odds of recovery is “connection and support,” he said.

“I think administration and council has role to play in that.”

Simon Ducatel

About the Author: Simon Ducatel

Simon Ducatel joined Mountain View Publishing in 2015 after working for the Vulcan Advocate since 2007, and graduated among the top of his class from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology's journalism program in 2006.
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