New overdose outreach teams in Saskatoon, Regina will work to connect people with supports

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Everett Hindley speaks at a news conference at Regina Fire Station No. 4 on Thursday, announcing a new pilot project that will create overdose outreach teams in Regina and Saskatoon. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Everett Hindley speaks at a news conference at Regina Fire Station No. 4 on Thursday, announcing a new pilot project that will create overdose outreach teams in Regina and Saskatoon. (Kirk Fraser/CBC - image credit)

A new pilot program is creating teams of counsellors and paramedics to reach out to people suffering from addictions in Saskatchewan's two largest cities and offer them support.

Overdose outreach teams — made up of a mental health and addictions counselor from the Saskatchewan Health Authority and a primary care paramedic from the fire departments in Regina and Saskatoon — will work to connect people who have recently overdosed with mental health and addictions programs and services, the province announced Thursday.

Under the program, outreach teams will provide short-term counselling while connecting individuals with other supports for long-term needs.

The outreach teams are part of a pilot project that will run until May 15 of next year.

"What we're trying to focus on is treatment, recovery and harm reduction," Minister for Mental Health and Addiction Everett Hindley said at a Thursday press conference announcing the pilot project.

'Meeting people where they are at'

Anyone can refer an individual to the overdose outreach teams, which will work Monday to Friday.

Once referred, the team will set up an appointment to meet the person who overdosed. That person has the choice of whether they want to accept the support the outreach team offers.

"It's all about meeting people where they are at," Saskatoon Fire Department Chief Morgan Hackl told Afternoon Edition host Garth Materie in a Thursday interview.

"Once they accept and would like some support, this team of two will form that trust and relationship and help this person connect with the appropriate services.

The Saskatoon Fire Department has noticed an increase in calls concerning overdose, Hackl says, and has responded to nearly 900 overdoses this year.

"Often it's people that have overdosed more than once,"Hackl said. "They just need that extra support, that extra step in this process that can help them work toward moving to a better place."

Hackl is confident about the pilot project, and says he'll measure success by the number of contacts the team makes during the six-month project and whether it leads to a reduction in the number of overdoses in the community.

The project has an emphasis on following up with people to limit repeated overdoses.

Kirk Fraser/CBC
Kirk Fraser/CBC

"It's an outreach program, not an enforcement program," Regina Fire and Protective Services Chief Layne Jackson said. "It's going to be very dynamic and based on the individual and how they respond to the offer."

The Regina fire department says it responded to 2,000 medical calls for service last year, including 1,200 involving drug overdoses.

Part of strategy to reduce overdoses: province

The province says the overdose outreach teams are a priority for its drug task force, which includes representatives from provincial government ministries, the provincial coroner, police services, the health authority and the Saskatoon Tribal Council.

The aim of the task force is to provide strategic leadership, improve co-ordination and monitor the province's response to substance-related harm, the province says.

The pilot project is part of a "hot-spotting" approach, where resources are directed to people at highest risk in specific areas, the province said in a Thursday news release.

The drug task force is providing $650,000 to fund such hot-spotting initiatives, and the overdose outreach team pilot project will receive $250,000, according to the province.

Hindley says there are misconceptions about overdoses in the province.

"This really impacts people from all walks of life in the province," the minister said. "I think it's important that people know that there are folks within our communities that do struggle with addictions but that there is help out there."

As of Oct. 31 this year, there had been 355 deaths linked to overdoses in the province — 155 confirmed drug toxicity deaths and 200 suspected fatal overdoses — according to the most recent report from the Saskatchewan Coroner's Service.