Toronto, ON, June 17, 2020 12:00 pm: Addictions and Mental Health Ontario (AMHO) is calling for urgent action to address the rising number of overdose and opioid-related deaths and the devastating impact felt by families and communities across Ontario. The COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions that exacerbate the risk of overdose for Ontarians who use drugs. At the same time, substance use rates in adults have increased. In a recent Ipsos survey, it was revealed that 42 per cent of Ontario’s adults having increased their substance or gambling use since the pandemic started.
According to the Chief Coroner for Ontario, the preliminary number of opioid-related deaths for 2019 in Ontario is 1,535 (which may rise as outstanding investigations are completed), up from 1,450 deaths in 2018. The number of suspect drug-related deaths in March, April, and May 2020 are approximately 25 per cent higher then the average number of suspect drug-related deaths reported each month in 2019 and the first 2 months of 2020.
These alarming numbers reflect the experience of AMHO member organizations providing community-based services. In a recent CBC report, AMHO Board of Director and the Director of the Ontario Harm Reduction Network, Nick Boyce, confirmed that on-the-ground experience aligns with the reported number of deaths. Before COVID-19, harm reduction and addiction workers and clients were already grappling with concurrent and persistent crises: an increasingly toxic drug supply and an affordable housing crisis. With the added pressures caused by COVID-19, the sector needs immediate support.
“The impact of this pandemic on people who use drugs is clear and worrisome,” said Adrienne Spafford, CEO of Addictions and Mental Health Ontario. “An increase in deaths due to overdoses has already been seen and we cannot allow that number to grow any more. Ontarians need proper harm reduction and addiction supports now.”
The Ipsos survey examines Ontario’s adults, children and youth experiences with addiction, mental health and mental illness in 2019 and again since COVID-19 began. Findings show that COVID-19 is greatly impacting the mental wellbeing of families in Ontario. Almost three quarters (74%) of respondents feeling that Ontarians are experiencing increased mental health and addictions challenges as a result of COVID-19. Two-thirds of Ontarians (67%) feel that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are going to be serious and lasting.
AMHO is using this research as an additional source to determine how many Ontarians need immediate support and to try to gain a deeper understanding of the impact of COVID-19. Already, the organization’s mental health and addiction frontline providers are assessing needs and reporting an increased demand for services in many areas.
Boyce and other harm reduction workers on the frontline have been drawing attention to the escalating overdose crisis and the urgent need for action since the beginning of the pandemic. Harm reduction workers report that the public health restrictions that were put in place to contain the spread of the virus are impacting access to lifesaving services. Consumption and Treatment Sites and overdose prevention sites are operating at reduced capacity to respect physical distancing rules, reducing the number of visits in one location by more than half. This is at a time when the unregulated supply of drugs is becoming increasingly toxic. The increase in demand is putting pressure on a sector already stretched thin, highlighting the vital need to immediately invest in expanding the spectrum of harm reduction and addiction services accessible across Ontario.
Finally and most importantly, strategies responding to the overdose crisis must come from people with lived and living experience. The expertise of people who use drugs and harm reduction experts must inform government’s response. The Government of Ontario should strike a task force of people who use drugs, harm reduction experts and other stakeholders to advise on an actions to address the rising number of overdose deaths. However, these urgent solutions will only be successful if supported with sustainable funding in the long term.
“Harm reduction workers were already grieving the loss of friends, colleagues and clients as a result of the overdose crisis,” said Spafford. “I am concerned about the added pressure these frontline workers are experiencing now with the pandemic crisis. Harm reduction workers deserve humanity, empathy and action.”
- Overall, 45% of Ontarians report that their mental health has deteriorated since COVID-19 began (defined as since the start of the pandemic; that is, since restrictions were put in place to self-isolate or physically distance yourself from others).
- Six in 10 (60%) of Ontarians said they felt stressed to the point that it had an impact on how they lived their daily life in 2019 which is on par with 2018 (62%); but 44% say since the start of the pandemic they are feeling this more often. Those in the GTA are the most impacted followed by Southwest Ontario.
- If they were experiencing a serious mental health issue, 55% of Ontarians would seek in-person therapy or counselling compared to just 24% that are likely to seek a call or text helpline and primary care for support.
- Currently, 30% of adults report having a relative living with them that has been diagnosed with a mental health condition or mental illness (having chronic depression, bipolar, anxiety, psychotic, substance use disorder, gambling disorder or personality disorder).
- Three quarters of Ontarians think that the Ontario government should put an equal focus on taking care of Ontarian’s mental health as physical health during COVID-19.
Ontarians 18 and over can find free mental health, addiction and gambling support in Ontario through www.connexontario.ca 1-866-531-2600
For Ontarians 0-18 and their families, Ontario’s child and youth mental health centres are open and provide free counselling and therapy, including online and virtual supports. Find help in your community: www.cmho.org/findhelp
If you are in crisis, call 911 or visit your closest emergency department.