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Specialized support needed in Hope to address high rate of toxic drug overdose deaths

Dr. Aseem Grover says a focus on prevention is key to saving lives

This story has been updated with a correction as of Feb. 15, 2024:

Hope’s population is not 40 per cent Indigenous but instead 11.37 per cent Indigenous. However, SD78’s student population is around 30 per cent Indigenous.

Supports, programs, and solutions to help with the toxic drug overdose death rate in Hope must be localized for the area, says the medical director of the Fraser Canyon Hospital (FCH).

Dr. Aseem Grover, Hope’s rural addiction provider and rural family practitioner, is urging the province to consider offering individualized supports to help prevent drug overdose deaths in Hope. This includes addressing transportation issues, providing access to mental health resources, and having more recovery programs (which includes access to harm reduction sites, detox and treatment facilities) in place.

“You have to recognize these are high numbers per 100,000,” Grover said. “We have to reflect on our strategy and say, ‘okay. We can’t continue to do the same thing. If we continue to do the same thing, we’re going to get similar results.’

“So, what we have to do now is go back to the drawing board and say, ‘okay, what are our strategies? How (will we be) more proactive than reactive?’ Because we cannot be only reactive in these sort of situations. We have to continue to be proactive.”

On Jan. 24, the BC Coroners Service Year-End report on drug-toxicity deaths for 2023 was released. According to the report, 2023 had the highest reported number of British Columbians (around 2,511) who died from a “poisoned” drug supply.

Of that total, Hope had 11 people die from drug poisonings last year. With a population of 6,700 people, that means Hope had a rate of 123.7 deaths per 100,000 people. As the provincial rate of overdose deaths for 2023 was 45.7 deaths per 100,000 people, this made Hope the highest in the region with nearly triple the provincial range.

Grover, who has been busy answering questions about the situation since the report’s release, is the only rural addiction provider in Hope. He is also, due to his background and experience in Hope, the current expert on the circumstances leading to the area — which includes the communities of Sunshine Valley, Laidlaw, Fraser Canyon, and Boston Bar — having such a high drug overdose death rate.

According to him, part of the reason Hope’s numbers are so high is because it is a rural community — meaning, that resources to help residents are usually too far away to access, both in a timely manner and without having to go through a long waiting period.

Currently, FCH is the main emergency hospital for the Hope area and wait times can be up to two to three hours due to the volume of cases/patients they receive. In addition, Grover said that the Hope Medical Centre is responsible for 70 per cent of medical issues and concerns in the community — and many of the medical staff divides their time between the clinic and hospital. The staff may also work with other communities (such as Chilliwack or Abbotsford) which means patients may need to wait months before they can be treated for long term or chronic conditions. There also aren’t enough doctors, or doctors taking on new patients, in Hope.

All of this leads to residents having a difficult time accessing appointments, counselling, and harm reduction or recovery treatment services.

It can also lead to difficulties in accessing prescribers who can offer a safe supply of drugs — which also includes prescribed alternatives being sold to Hope and area locals who can’t currently access it.

“Transportation has been a very big challenge in these communities. We are working with the Ministry of Health and we are working with our appropriate community stakeholders just to get things going. But it’s something that won’t be improved for at least two to three years because it takes a lot of work.

“And with the resources, its not necessarily about rapid access to care. We offer rapid access to care if anyone wants help. They will be seen by an addictions physician, which is essentially myself or a team member from the outreach team, within a timely manner. But a barrier is getting them to treatment recovery as those wait times have ballooned over the past few years.”

Another factor at play, he said, is that Hope often gets visitors from all over; Grover said that Hope is a transient community, and is both the first stop before the Coquihalla Highway and the last stop after the Coquihalla Highway. This means the community gets many visitors throughout the year which includes those looking to “escape,” and get as far away as possible, while trying to recover from addiction or detox.

This, he said, can be quite unsafe as people who choose to do this usually don’t know the area nor anyone who lives here. Which means that, quite often, these visitors don’t have a support system to turn to in Hope should things go wrong.

This, he said, was a factor with the 2023 numbers as three of the deaths involved people who did not live in Hope or the Hope area.

Additionally, the resources available in Hope aren’t specialized for the unique needs of the residents living here. In particular, Grover said that high risk individuals often struggle with complex medical conditions that require sub-specialists who simply aren’t available in Hope.

“Our local teams are hyper aware of who these individuals are,” he said. “But when we have regional programs, sometimes you will lose sight of who these individuals are. That’s where some people may fall through the cracks and so forth.”

Chronic pain, Grover said, can make it harder for people to leave their entrenched habits and to become sober. It can also be a factor in people turning to substances, in order to find relief. And everyone’s struggle with addiction is unique — a fact that becomes more apparent when taking mental health into account.

Unfortunately, while the Hope to Fraser Canyon area has a high burden per capita on mental health related issues, there is little psychiatric support; currently, there is only one psychiatrist available in Hope who, again due to dividing his time between different areas, is only able to make monthly visits to the community.

“The key to reducing any sort of substance use is to increase mental health support, and I’m working with original partners to expand that,” Grover said. “I’ve been assured that there will be some increased mental health support, but I just don’t know what the timeline is.”

As Hope’s population is also 11. 37 per cent Indigenous (with it’s student population, at SD78, being around 30 per cent Indigenous), Grover said there also needs to be an increase in the amount of Indigenous outreach programs and youth outreach programs. According to a 2022 report from the First Nations Health Authority, Indigenous people are six times more likely to be killed by toxic drugs than non-Indigenous people in B.C. This is due to the impacts of colonization, residential schools, inter-generational trauma, and racism — all which can greatly impact mental health and access to healthcare.

Above all, he said that prevention needs to be the key idea when it comes to helping people. This includes finding ways to encourage more specialists and doctors to practice in the area, so that doctors aren’t stretched thin and patients can have their needs adequately met.

“Once the overdose death data came out, the next day, the provincial government did say that they are going to be releasing, or improving access, to 180 to 250 more treatment facilities,” Grover said. “It is unfortunate that (providing better) access to treatment recovery was released after the overdose death data was released. In my view, that’s more of a reactive approach, rather than proactive.

“The provincial government, they mean well, but sometimes their strategies don’t fit every community. And so, that’s just one thing that has to be acknowledged. What’s best for Surrey isn’t necessarily best for Hope. Having sort of an accountability structure, with the local programs, would be much more successful.”

The District of Hope also said that they are willing to do more to help reduce overdose deaths within the community.

“The District of Hope fully commits to collaborative efforts with healthcare, community, and government partners to enhance access to vital harm reduction and treatment services,” the district said via email. “We are prepared to engage in continuous dialogue and proactive initiatives aimed at addressing the root causes contributing to the rise in drug-related fatalities in Hope. (As well as) investing in and actively collaborating with community-led initiatives.”

READ MORE: Overdose death rates in Chilliwack, Hope higher than B.C. average in 2023


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Kemone Moodley

About the Author: Kemone Moodley

I began working with the Hope Standard on August 2022.
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