A 911 call reporting an opioid overdose usually results in an ambulance and police cruiser racing to the scene.
In Norfolk County, the Addiction Mobile Outreach Team van might be close behind.
The team — overseen by Community Addiction and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) — brings counselling and treatment services to residents who need help, often diverting them from the criminal justice system in the process.
“We really just try to meet people where they’re at and break down barriers that people are facing,” said Emmy Downs, an outreach addictions counsellor with CAMHS, during an open house outside the Simcoe OPP station to mark International Overdose Awareness Day on Tuesday.
The mobile outreach team travels across the county, from downtown Simcoe and Port Dover to rural hamlets like Frogmore and Forestville.
“In Simcoe it’s more visible, but people who struggle with drugs and alcohol are everywhere,” said outreach addictions worker Arica Dekeyser.
Many rural residents do not have a car and cannot afford cab fare to get to Simcoe, where most addiction services are clustered. The mobile outreach team therefore becomes a first point of contact.
Dekeyser said clients can go from an initial phone call to getting clinical services in a few months, once they are more comfortable with the idea of getting help.
Outreach workers build trust by drawing on their own experiences with addiction or mental illness to “be real and break it down with the client,” she explained.
“They can talk about what coping strategies worked for them, what experiences they’ve had that are overlapping, and how did they overcome it.”
Outreach team members will take clients to appointments and advocate with medical professionals on their behalf. A nurse practitioner rides along to offer primary medical care to clients who do not have a family doctor.
Some clients call the outreach team themselves, while others are referred through social service agencies or emergency room doctors who treated their drug overdose.
The OPP has an Overdose Automatic Referral (OAR) program that instructs officers to call in the outreach team if drug users are unable to communicate after being injected with naloxone to reverse an opioid overdose.
According to police, 17 people have thus far been directed to treatment.
Loneliness feeds addiction
Demand for the outreach team’s service has grown steadily since it was founded in 2018, and spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With addiction, one of the biggest reasons why people suffer longer is the isolation,” Downs said, noting 12-step programs often work because of the “fellowship” available through meetings.
“People need to have a community and know that they’re not alone in their addiction,” she said.
The social isolation needed to slow the spread of the virus “has exacerbated the overdoses” in Haldimand-Norfolk, Downs said, as seen in Norfolk OPP data showing 52 suspected or confirmed opioid overdoses since August 2020, including 12 deaths.
That is an increase when compared to past years, said public health nurse David Czaplinski from the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit.
“Definitely the stress of the pandemic has caused an increase in people struggling from different mental health conditions, and addiction and mental health do go hand in hand,” Czaplinski said.
‘Help is here’
The Addiction Mobile Outreach Team has the full support of the OPP, said Insp. Rob Scott, interim commander of the Norfolk detachment.
“Unfortunately, daily we have calls that can be categorized as mental health and addiction,” Scott said. “Quite often we are that first point of contact because it’s a person in crisis.”
Getting outreach workers involved right away, Scott said, serves “to alleviate calls for service to our front-line officers, and more importantly to get access to the right services for people who are in crisis.”
Opioid addiction, he added, is a shared problem that needs collaborative solutions.
“From a policing perspective, if we’re tied up going to users and addicts who are in crisis, that means our efforts can’t be turned toward trying to take enforcement action — which is the police’s duty — to those individuals that are trafficking and putting these drugs on the street,” Scott said.
He noted the OPP’s street crimes unit “regularly” seizes street drugs, such as fentanyl, along with firearms and other weapons involved in the drug trade.
“That’s where our focus needs to be,” Scott said.
While drug addiction remains a serious issue throughout the region, public health nurse Kate MacInnis is optimistic that with sustained effort, the problem can be overcome.
“Even though people are isolated during these times, and it’s been so long, there are outreach programs available,” she said.
“Help is here.”
J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator