Several events dedicated to shifting the stigma around substance use have set the stage for continued growth, says Jill Zacharias, the City of Revelstoke’s Development Coordinator.
The events, which took place last fall, included a participatory art installation at LUNA Nocturnal Art & Wonder, as well as three other community events planned by Simon Hunt and Stacie Byrne.
“With this whole project, what we have been trying to do is build on the community dialogue that we have started through the Mental Health and Substance Use Local Action Team, (Byrne’s) articles in the paper, trying to build on the strength of that community conversation and deepen it in order to build the trust that we need to be able to listen and learn how we can make Revelstoke a better place, and safer,” said Zacharias.
With funding from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research at the University of Victoria, Byrne hosted a community dinner and a panel mixer. Hunt started the dialogue at LUNA and hosted the final event, a harm reduction table at Traverse on Nov. 28.
“Throughout all of this, the whole point of having a community dialogue is to understand that there’s no one person who holds all the power and all the knowledge and is the expert,” Byrne said. “Every single person involved in this, from the physician to the mental health clinician to the drug and alcohol worker, to the community member, to the mom, to the child, to the teacher, they’re all people who hold some of the knowledge and it is important that some of this knowledge is shared between all of these people.”
At LUNA on Sept. 28, attendees had the opportunity to contribute their “seeds of dialogue” and hang them on the “tree of understanding”.
Joe Reiner of the AIDS Network Kootenay Outreach and Support Society, ANKORS, was at the event with videos as well as information to spur conversation.
The Let’s Taco-bout it dinner saw around 130 attendees, Byrne said.
The tables were set up community style, with conversation cards to spark conversation.
“It was more about talking about social inclusion, talking about building community, talking about sharing a meal with a stranger,” Byrne said.
A survey set up on the wall, indicated that everyone at the dinner had both met someone new and learned something new about someone. Around 30 per cent of people learned something about substance use.
And the next event, the panel mixer, filled that gap.
“There needed to be relationship building that went on,” Byrne said, before they dove into the education and information part of the conversation.
The panel mixer was a cross between a panel discussion and a social mixer. Attendees voted on which questions they wanted the experts, which included people with lived experience, as well as medical professionals, to answer. The discussion was followed by socializing and the opportunity to ask questions face to face.
Hunt brought Reiner back to Revelstoke during Welcome Week for two events. The first was at Revelstoke Secondary School, where Reiner did a presentation to more than 40 students about harm reduction, otherwise known as how to party safe.
“You don’t ever condone, but, when people are educated and informed they can make better decisions,” Hunt said.
Reiner, as well as a public health nurse and a community paramedic, set up a booth at Cymatic Grounds Welcome Week event at Traverse.
Hunt said they handed out about a dozen Naloxone kits, which can be used to save a person’s life if they are overdosing on opioids, as well as doing then-and-there training on how to use the kits.
“Where we really saw a lot of interest were people who work in the industry-work in bars, they were really interested in understanding Naloxone,” Hunt said.
Overall, Zacharias, who secured the funding for the project, is happy with the results.
“The project has exceeded my expectations,” she said.
A long time in the works
Though this series of events was made possible by the funding from the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, bringing the community together to address stigma and educate about substance use has been in the works for several years, with several organizations, including the CYMHSU Local Action Team, involved.
Zacharias completed a Community Substance Use Strategy in partnership with Interior Health back in 2010, but the landscape has changed with the fentanyl crisis as well as the introduction of vaping.
“For a long time there was a feeling of safety in our community,” Zacharias said. There were rumours that the drug dealers weren’t even allowing fentanyl into the community. There was almost this false sense of security that it’s not happening here, it couldn’t happen here, it’s never going to hit our community, which of course is false.”
In the first half of 2018 there were six opioid related deaths in Revelstoke, Zacharias said and because of professional protocols and confidentiality, the conversation around the incidents was limited.
“It was super traumatizing I think, for us as a community as a whole, to have something like this happen and to not really have any official discussion about it,” Zacharias said.
In early 2019, Interior Health flagged Revelstoke as high risk for opioid deaths because of the six the year prior, Zacharias said. And so the CYMHSU Local Action Team, of which Zacharias is a co-chair, brought together key stakeholders to get the conversation going.
But, what was always missing, was someone with lived experience: either a person who uses a substance, a person who is in recovery or a person who lost someone due to substance use.
“People fear social repercussions,” she said. “The stigma is huge. People fear losing their jobs, and it is a well-founded fear.”
However, as Byrne said, “no one person who holds all the power and all the knowledge and is the expert.”
Zacharias agreed, “the people who are closest to the issue are the best place to come up with solutions”.
Zacharias has applied for funding to continue the conversation and, if successful, she hopes to updated the Community Substance Use Strategy.