Though a controversial advertisement over fentanyl has reinvigorated public discourse on B.C.’s overdose crisis, Penticton addictions recovery workers are questioning whether the ad was a productive way to get the conversation rolling.
Alternatives Funeral & Cremation Services released an advertisement, part of a full ad campaign, depicting a family at a funeral, posing the question “Will fentanyl be the reason for your next family gathering?”
That advertisement struck a nerve with the B.C.’s top coroner, who decried it as a “fear-based” initiative. The scare tactics are something many health-care professionals have moved away from, including Pathways Addictions Resource Centre in Penticton.
“We would rather do education than strike fear in people,” executive director Daryl Meyers said. “The ad itself is a bit disturbing, I find. Public education and awareness is important, but scaring people doesn’t really have an effective measure.”
Jerome Abraham, executive director of the Discovery House recovery program, said that negative attitude persists.
“The people that are in active addiction are self-medicating because there’s something going on, and as a society, the sort of attitude that these are just throwaway people that was happening in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and those just dying in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver,” he said.
“We’re seeing the effect of that attitude. All it’s done is further stigmatize and push people away.”
The chain of funeral homes is digging in its heels on the campaign, firing back with a news release aimed at correcting “inaccurate conjectures” by “uninformed critics.”
“It is puzzling to us that B.C. chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, has seen fit to pass judgment on the program before it has been put into action, particularly since the B.C. Coroner’s Service had been fully briefed on the nature of our presentation six months ago and had agreed to support it,” Alternatives owner Tyrel Burton said in the release. “It’s very disappointing to now see that commitment withdrawn.”
Meyers said the intent behind the “fear-based” initiatives are intended to make people “think twice” about doing drugs.
“It’s been shown not to work in the past, any kind of fear-based campaign. I think what’s going on now is some people are really afraid. They are afraid of the fentanyl crisis, we know that,” she said.
“We know that people who are using substances are afraid, parents are afraid that their children might get caught up in it, especially when people are dying from recreational use, and so you tend to go to that fear-based model when you, yourself are afraid.”
One thing is certain: the advertisement campaign, which Burton said was intended to discourage future users rather than current users, has gotten people talking. That’s one thing Abraham said is good to see.
“Nobody was talking about this when it was 200 people, and then tons of people talked about it when it was 944 people died in B.C. last year of overdoses,” he said.
“What I’ve felt this year is people have gotten saturated with it, and it’s so ugly that they’re just like ‘I’m tired of hearing about it.
I kind of want to just pretend it’s not happening.’”
Even for Abraham, who is on the front lines of the overdose crisis, he said it can be easy to try to numb himself to the issue.
“I know, personally, 20 people that died last year — I’m sick of it — that probably didn’t have to. I get desensitized to it, after the fifth or sixth close person that’s died, it’s like ‘I don’t want to feel this anymore,’” he said.
While people are talking about the issue again, Abraham said he can think of better uses for resources, pointing to education and initiatives to shed light on the people affected by addictions as a good use of resources.
“Where the disconnect for me is, we’ve got to move beyond conversation into some action,” he said. “I was doing a group yesterday about communication, and just because we’re communicating doesn’t mean it’s healthy communication.”
Abraham also said the issues in the overdose crisis go beyond telling people not to do drugs — systemic changes, he said, are required to curb the root causes of addictions, like poverty and social isolation.
“(Until) the whole society’s headspace around this whole illness changes, I don’t see big changes. Next year it’ll probably, unfortunately, be more.”