Peer sup­port work­ers on front lines of the OD crisis need sup­port too: Ex­perts

The Western Star - - CANADA - BY AMY SMART

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.”

CP PHOTO

Trey Hel­ten, right, speaks with drug user Gina McEwen while walk­ing his dog Princess Zelda in the Down­town East­side of Van­cou­ver on Fri­day.

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