Toxic drug warnings need boost, says Sask. mother who lost daughter to opioid overdose

Heather Balfour, left, and her daughter, Rachel, who died from fentanyl poisoning in early 2019.  (Submitted by Heather Balfour - image credit)
Heather Balfour, left, and her daughter, Rachel, who died from fentanyl poisoning in early 2019. (Submitted by Heather Balfour - image credit)

In 2019, the drug overdose crisis became personal for a Saskatchewan mother after her 18-year-old daughter was found dead in her residence room.

Heather Balfour was paralyzed by grief after losing Rachel. Four months after her death, an autopsy report revealed she had died from fentanyl poisoning.

Balfour wasn't aware of the fentanyl crisis until the death of her daughter, whom she described as an engaged student with a bright future, but who suffered from depression and anxiety.

"We had no idea she was using drugs," Balfour told Shauna Powers, host of CBC Radio's Saskatchewan Weekend.

"There's such a misunderstanding about addiction and misunderstanding about the toxic drug supply. There's very much a misunderstanding of 'Well that's not going to happen to me.' I was one of those people five years ago."

As of Oct. 31 this year, there have 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.

Saskatchewan Coroners Service
Saskatchewan Coroners Service

The province reported 409 confirmed or suspected drug toxicity deaths in 2021.

Saskatchewan's chief coroner, Clive Weighill, expects the province will suffer 420 drug toxicity deaths by the end of the year — a record for the coroner's service.

Drug toxicity deaths have been increasing year by year since 2016.

Weighill says fentanyl has played a big role in the increase of drug toxicity deaths in Saskatchewan in recent years. The opioid is 50- to 100-times more toxic than drugs such as heroin or morphine, according to the province.

From Jan 1. To Oct 31, 2022, the coroners service has confirmed 93 accidental drug toxicity deaths related to fentanyl, and 53 deaths connected with acetyl-fentanyl.

Weighill says it is usually not just one drug killing people, but a combination of substances. Fentanyl can be mixed with other substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

Across Canada, 85 per cent of all apparent accidental opioid deaths between January and March involved fentanyl, according to the Government of Canada website.

"I find it quite upsetting that more and more people are dying every year and more people need support," Balfour said.

Support groups for families

After her daughter's death, Balfour says, she wanted to talk with other parents who have endured similar tragedies.

"Being able to connect with others who are experiencing the same devastating loss I was experiencing at the time  would've been incredibly really helpful for me," Balfour said.

That led Balfour to bring Healing Hearts, a nationwide organization of peer-led support for families grieving from those losses, to Regina in 2021. Participants sign confidentiality agreements so they can share discreetly very personal stories and hardships.

Facilitating these meetings is a way of honouring her daughter, Balfour says.

"I always feel her presence with me when I'm at these group meetings," Balfour said

"I think she would be proud of us as a family for carrying on in her absence and doing some of this work so it doesn't happen to other people.

There are around 25 regular members in the Regina group.

Balfour was expecting other parents to be in the group, which currently has about 25 regular members, but was surprised to see younger people who have lost siblings and parents joining as well.

"We all share this one tragic thing that has happened to us and we've developed a real community," she said.

There are Healing Hearts in-person groups in both Saskatoon and Regina, while online Zoom meetings are held for people  in rural areas of the province.

With files from Saskatchewan Weekend