Peer support workers on front lines of the OD crisis need support too: Experts
Trey Helten has known almost every one of the 50 or so people he has treated for overdoses on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside since February.
As a former heroin and methamphetamine user who lived in the neighbourhood for three years before getting clean and returning “to do something positive,” he’s one of many peer support volunteers and workers playing a vital role in stemming the overdose crisis that has devastated the province.
Unlike professional workers such as paramedics and firefighters, Helten and many peer support volunteers are dealing with the loss of their friends, with no formalized supports in place.
“It would be nice if we had regular access to some sort of 24/7 counselling down here. I just knew one participant who came back from his tent and found his girlfriend dead from an overdose. And he didn’t really have anyone else to talk to. It just encourages the cycle (of drug use),” he said.
Helten himself had a tough day recently when a drug user reverted to childlike state, asking his mother why she didn’t protect him from his stepfather, but Helten said he managed to avoid relapsing by phoning his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor.
“I walked off shift that day feeling like my eyes were vibrating,” he said. “It had really upset me and I felt like I had a contact high.”
Ryan McNeil, a researcher at the BC Centre on Substance Use and an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of medicine, said he has been involved in studies interviewing 200 drug users since December 2016.
Consistently, he has heard that peer support workers and volunteers are more trusted by drug users because they have shared experience. He has also heard they need more support than they’re getting.
They are often drug users themselves and are being traumatized again by the scope of loss in their community, he said.
“We’ve spoken with a number of peers who’ve subsequently left peer positions or moved on from them just because they can’t cope with the stress they’re experiencing,” McNeil said.
“They’re both dealing with the stress and hazards of doing the work that they do while also losing people in their community friends, family members and so on.”
The BC Coroners Service said 1,451 people died of illicit drug overdoses last year in the province.
Helten said he wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for safeinjection sites and the peer support workers who helped him. So he wanted to return to the Downtown Eastside after getting clean to do his part.
“I was an IV heroin and crystal methamphetamine user, covered in scabs, 160 pounds, jaundiced, yellow eyes, very sickly,” said Helten, 35.
“Peer support workers were the only people who treated me like a human being while I was in my addiction.”
Trey Helten, right, speaks with drug user Gina McEwen while walking his dog Princess Zelda in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver on Friday.