The Opioid Crisis

Young people are at a particularly elevated risk of being harmed by opioids.

The opioid crisis in this country is a grave issue – with accidental deaths and hospitalisations reaching epidemic-like proportions, it impacts countless families across the country.

Even if it seems overwhelming, understanding the main drivers behind this issue can help you talk with the young people in your life about the potentially significant risks of using opioids non-medically.

Adolescents and youth have accounted for close to 20% of preventable deaths due to opioid overdose, and since the beginning of the opioid crisis, the number of hospitalization rates due to opioid poisonings have increased across all age groups – but mostly among young people aged 15 to 24 years of age.

Most hospitalisations and deaths are caused by powerful opioids like fentanyl and its analogues that are synthesized and sold on the illegal market. These opioids are very unpredictable in terms of their content and strength.

Illicit Fentanyl is concealed in pills that look like prescription medications and is added to cocaine, methamphetamine, and other illegal substances. There is no way of knowing for sure how much fentanyl is present in an Illicit drug, it can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted – even a few grains can be deadly. Anyone who uses these substances risks consuming a fatal amount.

An accidental overdose can happen to anyone who uses opioids, including those who:

  • Are struggling with a problematic substance use disorder
  • Use drugs occasionally in a recreational context
  • Are trying an illegal drug for the first time
  • Are not strictly following their health care professionals’ instructions

The opioid crisis has claimed the lives of 30,843 people between January 2016 and March 2022, the majority of which (96%) are accidental. That’s close to 21 deaths every day. 1 These deaths represent people who are someone’s loved one, a family member, a friend, a colleague, individuals who have lost their lives too soon.

The Covid 19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on the opioid crisis – since the pandemic’s onset, there has been a 91% increase in opioid toxicity deaths and in 2022 so far, a 61% increase in emergency medical services responses related to opioids.2

British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario are the regions the hardest hit, and males aged 20 to 59 years old account for most of all opioid deaths (76%) 3

Many people, including youth, are more stressed and anxious and may be using to cope, they are often isolated and are using drugs alone, and there are not as many services available for them to access help when they need it – all this, combined with an increasingly toxic drug supply, has led to an increase in opioid related poisonings.

Risk factors

Parents can be aware of certain factors that may put a child at a greater risk for opioid dependence or addiction. Psychological, social, and biological risk factors like genetics, mental health, early life trauma, poverty, and lack of secure housing are all factors that can increase the likelihood of young people using substances problematically and/or developing health problems associated with their use.

Other risk factors can be:

  • Personal history of substance use issues involving any substance, including alcohol
  • Family history of substance use problems or addiction
  • History of pre-adolescent sexual abuse or childhood trauma
  • Personal history of psychiatric problems

Risk factors do not determine a child’s destiny – but they can provide a general idea as to the likelihood of problematic drug use or an individual’s susceptibility to addiction. Understanding risk factors is important as youth who may have already used substances such as alcohol and cannabis may be at greater risk for experimentation with other drugs, including opioids.

Reducing the harm

If your child (or a young person you know) uses opioids or has an opioid use disorder, know the signs of overdose, always have Naloxone on hand, and reduce the harms and the chance of accidental overdose by making a safety plan with them. For example, only consuming drugs at supervised consumption or overdose prevention sites, make sure they know they should never consume alone and that they understand that they will not be in trouble if they ever need to call someone for help. Ensure they understand that you will support them whenever they are ready to reach out for help.

A safety plan can help to reduce the harms, as well as letting your child know that you care, and you want to stay involved in their life in a positive way.

If you are dealing with a young person’s addiction to opioids, connect with the health care facilities in your region or get short term counselling support at our Parent Support Hub.

Stigma

It’s important to understand that a substance use disorder or addiction is not a choice, it is a treatable medical condition. 

So why aren’t people getting the help they or their families need? The role that stigma plays in this country’s opioid crisis cannot be underestimated.

“Stigma is at the heart of what’s keeping people from stepping forward and getting help and practicing harm reduction. It’s pervasive. The stigma surrounding opioid and other drug use problems eclipses anything we’ve seen in terms of the stigma associated with mental illness.”

Stephanie Knaak, Ph.D., Mental Health Commission of Canada

The stigma that surrounds substance use has isolated people who use drugs and has created significant barriers like shame and guilt that make it difficult for them to reach out for the treatment and support they need.  This often leads people to use drugs alone, which can in turn lead to overdosing with no one there to help them.

Even small changes can help reduce the cycle of stigma, such as;

  • Using people-first language
  • Not denigrating those who use drugs using derogatory names  
  • Taking the time to listen with compassion and without judgment.

It is important to talk about the negative effects of stigma with the young people in our lives. By opening the conversation about stigma, it will help to empower all of us to think about how we treat those who suffer from some form of problematic drug use and take action to improve the situation.

Learn more about the negative effects of stigma, and what we can all do to avoid it, we encourage you to read the Chief Public Health Officer’s Report on the State of Public Health in Canada 2019.

Get more information about the opioid crisis in Canada here.