Addictions services in Fort McMurray are seeing increased demand as the pandemic wears on and takes a toll on mental health.
Brian Ross is the owner of Ross Residence Fort McMurray, which operates two homes of sober transitional housing for men. The service is meant to help men who are coming from treatment, jail or the streets.
Ross knew three people who died of overdose within two months of each other this year. He opened a second home because of an increase in demand through the pandemic.
"For about four or five months during the beginning of the pandemic, I was constantly turning people away," Ross said. "I opened a second one… and by the end of the day I was full."
There are 11 beds in the residences, and four men are currently waitlisted. He is now looking at opening up several more homes.
Ross said COVID restrictions have made it harder for people to seek help.
"I think it's made it harder for people to gain sobriety. Addiction's running rampant."
Between January and May 2021, three people died of an overdose in Fort McMurray. In 2020 there were 18 deaths, the highest recorded number of overdose deaths in Fort McMurray since the province started tracking the data in 2016.
Christa Ryland, an overdose prevention nurse with Northreach Society Fort McMurray, said the organisation has given out fewer naloxone kits over the pandemic: 1,000 kits in 2020 versus 2,000 in 2019.
She attributed it to a shift in who requested the kits. Prior to the pandemic many companies would request kits and training, but training slowed as businesses closed.
Many of the kits were given to vulnerable persons or their families. There was also a demand for home delivery.
New patrons at detox centre
At the Pastew Place Detox Centre, there's been a significant number of new patrons and many people who are returning after a relapse.
"We've seen people coming in that have had quite a few years sobriety and they've relapsed," said executive director Amber Fort.
In 2020, there was an average of 32 admissions into the detox program a month — in 2021 that number is 43.
A third of the people accessing the services at Pastew Place are new clientele, an increase of 55 per cent.
"I think it's the pressures of the pandemic … the isolation, the loneliness," said Fort. "It caused them to either relapse or their addiction to escalate."
Fort anticipates the need for addiction services will increase over the next few years similarly to when the demand grew after the 2016 Horse River wildfire.
"For the average person this has been stressful, so for people that have limited or no coping skills or no coping tools besides substance use, this is what they're turning to. And it's showing in our numbers," said Fort.
Cassie Gensorek, team lead with the Mark Amy Treatment Centre, said the pandemic has impacted the number of services available.
"Even just making referrals to counselling service, we're seeing way increased waitlists," said Gensorek.
She said the treatment centre was heavily affected by the pandemic, having to switch to virtual programs instead of in-person. But the positive side of that is MATC can reach new clientele and help more people.
"It's allowed us to increase the capacity of folks that we're taking in at any given time," said Gensorek.
'We've certainly seen a whole new market of individuals coming forward that wouldn't normally apply for a residential program."
MATC is planning to continue running virtual programs.