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‘It’s in every neighbourhood’: Mother speaks out on toxic drug crisis in Okanagan

Helen Jennens lost both her sons to toxic drugs
Helen Jennens’ urn that holds the ashes of her two sons, Rian and Tyler. (submitted)

Helen Jennens knows the reality of toxic drugs all too well.

She lost her sons Rian and Tyler to toxic supplies before the public health emergency was declared in B.C. in April 2016.

On Aug. 31, Jennens is encouraging everyone to join Moms Stop the Harm at 7 p.m. in Kelowna’s Kerry Park to mark International Overdose Awareness Day.

Rian passed away August 21, 2011.

“He struggled with substance use when he was about 14,” Jennens said. “He was diagnosed with ADHD in school and really had a tough time both socially and academically and started self-medicating with alcohol and substances.”

Jennens said they did what they could to get Rian the help he needed, but substance use wasn’t something she knew much about.

“We went through years of trauma with Rian’s substance use. Then when he was 26 he got into a recovery program, 12-step recovery program, and it really worked for him. He found a community of people he felt he belonged to.”

Rian was drug-free for about eight years and Jennens said he was doing pretty good.

But in the blink of an eye things can change.

“He got hit by a truck on his motorcycle. The last ride of the season and his leg was crushed from hip to toe. For the next three years, he just underwent more and more surgeries to try to repair his knee and his ankle and his hip. And along with the surgeries came a boatload of prescription medication.”

Rian’s death was accidental.

“He went into a respiratory depression from a combination of narcotics, and I found him the next day. He was propped up on his bed with his computer open on his lap and he had just fallen asleep due to the medication and it caused respiratory depression and he didn’t wake up.”

READ MORE: Decriminalization of hard drugs puts B.C. in small, select group of jurisdictions

Tyler died January 14, 2016.

“He’d lived in Thailand for 10 years and he was in Thailand when the tsunami hit the coast on Boxing Day of 2004. Tyler lost his business and his home and a lot of friends. He was actually hailed a hero in the Canadian Press because he went out in a kayak and saved a Thai boatman who was drowning.”

Jennens thinks her son was dealing with post-traumatic stress from the disaster.

“In 2010, Tyler ruptured his Achilles playing football and had surgery. They gave him a prescription of Oxycontin and it started his opioid dependency.”

Jennens says Tyler’s use of Oxycontin escalated to heroin after the death of his brother.

“For five years we looked at our medical health system trying to get answers for Tyler to get well.”

Tyler died from a fentanyl overdose after using what he thought was heroin.

Jennens says International Overdose Awareness Day is a great opportunity to remember the thousands of British Columbians who have died from toxic drugs.

“I think it’s really important for people, particularly that have lost someone to the drug crisis to have a day of remembrance and honour them.”

Jennens has been advocating for safe supply for a long time, previously having sat as a director for Moms Stop the Harm.

“Eighty-three percent of the people we are losing are men between the ages of 19 and 59 and they’re dying in their own homes. It’s happening in every neighbourhood in our city, not just downtown on Leon and Lawrence.”

Jennens knows she can never bring her sons back, but hopes her work will keep someone else’s child alive.

The Aug. 31 event will include live music, educational videos, naloxone kit training, and a candlelight vigil.

Other events taking place across the province can be found at

READ MORE: Breaking the law to provide safe drugs? Nelson advocate says it should be considered


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