Eight NDP MPPs from Northern Ontario sent a letter to Premier Doug Ford last week demanding more action to prevent opioid related deaths in the North. “Our communities are suffering, families are struggling and people are dying,” the letter stated. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, opioid related incidents continue to rise. The situation is alarming in every community of Northern Ontario.”
“Unfortunately, we have not received a response,” said Michael Mantha, MPP for Algoma-Manitoulin and one of the letter writers. “We have been asking for a very long time. In the Algoma area, per capita we have the highest number of drugs and addiction cases. As you can see from the many crosses that have been set up in Sudbury, Sudbury is another area that is going through some hardships. We want this government to take action. Words are just not satisfactory anymore. We want to see some investments. We want to see drugs and addiction taken seriously by this government so we can stop seeing people die in our communities.”
The letter noted that Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre treated 262 patients for opioid overdoses last year while Timmins had 29 opioid-related deaths in 2020. During the eight months from January to August 2020, at least 60 residents in the Sudbury-Manitoulin district died from an opioid-related overdose, nearly double the amount over the same period in 2019, where there were 36 opioid-related overdose deaths.
“We want to see investments in prevention,” said Mr. Mantha. “We want to see investments into detox centres. We want to see a presence within our communities. Some of our communities don’t have detox centres and people need to rely on crisis lines. Those crisis lines are fantastic and have amazing people there. What we don’t have is services that deal with the ongoing issues after the crisis. Those are as important as dealing with the crisis itself.”
These numbers are not just statistics, the letter stated. First and foremost, they are people. “We really do need this government to step up and make some major investments throughout Northern Ontario so that people can start getting the care they so deserve,” he said. “When you’re looking at an individual, it’s not just an individual. There’s an entire circle around that individual that is suffering as well. Families are suffering. Friends are suffering. The community suffers because we all see an individual hurting and we can’t do anything. We can identify that there’s a need and that this person needs help but that help is not available. We continue to see hardships and to hear heartbreaking stories where beautiful young people with so much potential are making the ultimate decision and taking their lives or just not having the resources to deal with their personal crisis. That is really heartbreaking.”
A major issued faced by Northern Ontario is the lack of services. Rural and urban areas of the North need mental health infrastructure adapted to their population needs. Mental health, addiction, consumption treatment and overdose prevention services play a vital role in our healthcare systems, the letter said. These help the most marginalized people in our communities and must be accessible to all.
“The wait lists are staggering for the mental health programs that we do have,” added Mr. Mantha. “I know from personal experience that you’re looking at anywhere from 12 to 18 months and if you’re a Francophone, you’re looking at 18 to 36 months to be seen by a psychologist or other professional for any type of ongoing mental health issue. There are great people on the crisis line but it’s the ongoing supports whether it’s mental health, having access to detox and addiction centre or having access to healthcare professionals that are missing. It is very time consuming and it’s very frustrating for people who are just looking for hope. When you don’t have that opportunity for ongoing medical treatment you lose that hope.”
The MPPs offered some simple and concrete steps the government could take including declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency and breaking the stigma of substance use; investing in harm reduction strategies immediately; working with municipalities and Local Services Boards to address mental health and addiction issues in their communities; funding the mental health and addiction infrastructure needed to bring equity of access to the people of Northern Ontario, including more safe beds and 24 hour services for treatment; addressing the social determinants of health of people living with an opioid addiction; and expediting the approval process for supervised consumption sites in the north.
Mr. Mantha is engaging with Northern mental health and addictions centres during the current constituency week. “We’re trying to have a discussion about what we need to do now and where we need to focus our services.”
He’s learned that COVID-19 has restricted some of the services and spaces that are available at treatment centres because of protocols. “We need to sit down and have a discussion with government to see how we can work with these protocols. How do we make sure that individuals who are being put in care have access to not only mental health and drug and addictions services, but also the testing that is required to permit them to go into these centres? That’s one of the big challenges that we have.”
He referred to a facility in Elliott Lake that could actually double the number of clients they see but for pandemic protocols. Rightfully so, he noted. The protocols are in place not only for the safety of the individuals and clients, but also the staff that work in the centres. “But there are opportunities and by bringing all of these organizations together we’ll be able to sit down and have a discussion and then we can move forward on discussions with the government. We need protocols we can follow but that increase our capacity to provide more care.”
The other MPPs who contributed to the letter are France Gelinas (Nickel Belt), Gilles Bisson (Timmins), Guy Bourgouin (Mushkegoquk-James Bay), Sol Mamakwa (Kiiwetinoong), Judith Monteith-Farrell (Thunder Bay-Atikokan), John Vanthof (Timiskaming-Cochrane) and Jamie West (Sudbury).
Lori Thompson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Manitoulin Expositor