photos: Megaphone vendor Robert McMillan also volunteers with the Overdose Prevention Society in the Downtown Eastside. Photo by Jackie Dives.

Severe burnout: How the overdose crisis is impacting front line workers

Out Front: Community organizations and staff share their experiences as the opioid epidemic rages on

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B.C.’s overdose epidemic is not only killing more and more drug users than ever before, but front line workers are running out of resources and suffering from burnout with the growing intensity on the streets.

From July to September 2017, local investment group Central City Foundation did in-depth interviews with 29 leaders at 21 non-profit organizations serving Vancouver’s inner city and released a report in December. This includes front line workers, shelter managers, health workers, and directors of non-profit organizations and social service agencies.

More than 71 per cent of organizations say the opioid crisis is having a direct impact on their staff and their work. Another 29 per cent say the impact of the crisis has been indirect but “still highly significant.”

“Our staff are doing the real frontline work every single day,” says Mebrat Beyene, with the non-profit Wish Drop In Centre Society that supports women in the Downtown Eastside, in the report. “They are there before the first responders, and they are there after the first responders leave, and we are supposed to be doing this for a fraction of what they have.”

And it comes as no surprise. There have been 1,208 illicit drug overdose deaths from January to Oct. 31, 2017, according to a BC Coroners Service report from Dec. 11. There were 96 deaths in October—a 26 per cent increase from the same month in 2016—equating to about three deaths a day.

Projected to hit 1,500 by the end of 2017, it’s a substantial increase to the 985 deaths in all of 2016. In 2007, there were 202 illicit drug overdose deaths. Since then, there have been 4,774 lives lost.

While earlier this year the federal government announced $65 million to spend over five years to respond to the crisis, $10 million to assist B.C., and $7.5 million on research—it doesn’t address the hidden costs associated with the crisis.

According to the report, community organizations are not being supported to deal with the financial cost or emotional toll of the crisis—save for some small local grants.

Those surveyed say the epidemic is causing them “immense trauma,” which is hurting operations. “Organizations report trouble finding and keeping staff, facing greater costs and more difficult operations because they have increased workloads and higher incidences of sick leave,” states the report.

Staffers are burning out faster as they respond to the crisis on top of their regular work, keeping track of the people they serve to ensure they’re still alive—“and this has a direct impact on the organizations’ bottom line.”

“One of my staff told me a while ago, they are scared of the phone ringing now because they have had too many people call them to say somebody has died,” says Calum Scott, with Family Services of Greater Vancouver, in the report.

“A large percentage of our staff are peer workers, people who were homeless themselves or had addiction issues themselves and this crisis is reminding them of past trauma and pain on a regular basis.”

Community loss, lack of resources, an under-valuing of the work front line workers do, and stigma, were among the other top issues the overdose epidemic has posed to the groups.

But these same groups have also found innovative ways to deal with the situation.

For instance, Indigenous front line organizations say treating the whole person—not just their addiction—is important. They’re doing it through holistic and cultural healing.

Addictions treatment with a continuum of care, overdose prevention sites, giving people purpose, and peer-driven initiatives are helping a lot too. But at the end of the day, more government funding for solutions that work must be committed, according to the report.

“You will not get any person paid enough money to stand in an alley with puke and shit and piss, freezing nasty cold rain, but someone from the community will do that for another friend, and that’s just how it is,” says Sarah Blyth, with the Overdose Prevention Society and Downtown Eastside Street Market Society, in the report.


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