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Opioid Overdose Stigma, Risk, and Prevention

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

Toxic drugs have claimed more than 10,000 lives in BC since the declaration of the public health emergency on April 14, 2016. Six British Columbians die every day from unregulated drugs.

This year, we mark International Overdose Awareness Day with a continued sense of grief, urgency, and hope that stigma and failed drug policy will become a thing of the past.

Observed on the 31st of August every year, International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) seeks to create better understanding of overdose, reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths, and create change that reduces the harms associated with drug use. Overdose can affect anybody and one of the messages of this day is that the people who overdose are our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters – they are loved, and they are missed. No family should ever have to go through the pain of losing a loved one because of an overdose.

Stigma around drug use

Most of the public still think that substance use disorder or addiction only impacts people who struggle with homelessness or are on the streets, but most of the people dying from these toxic drugs are actually from families like our own, living in cities, suburbia, and rural communities. And while men 20 – 60 are at highest risk, rates are increasing at a faster rate for women, seniors (due to additional health issues/medications), and young children who are accidently exposed.

Studies show that stigma is a major underlying factor driving the opioid crisis in Canada and acts as a major barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery efforts of the individual. The personal shame and public stigma attached to drug use have largely contributed to the worsening of the opioid crisis.

Risk Factors for an Overdose

The following are the top risk factors for overdose:

TOLERANCE SHIFT: Individuals with decreased tolerance due to recent release from incarceration, drug treatment/detoxification, hospitalization, abstinence, or intermittent nondaily use of opioids are at risk.

MIXING DRUGS: Combining opioids with other legal (including alcohol) or illegal substances may enhance their effects and thus increase the overdose risk.

PREVIOUS HISTORY OF OVERDOSE: Individuals who have had a prior overdose event at any point in their lifetime are more likely to experience another overdose.

PHYSICAL HEALTH: If a person’s body is already burdened with an acute or chronic illness (e.g., asthma, other substance use disorder, HIV, etc.), the person is more vulnerable to overdose.

VARIATION IN OPIOID STRENGTH/CONTENT: Illegally purchased substances vary greatly in their strength (e.g., one bag of heroin or fentanyl might not be as strong as another bag even when obtained from the same seller).

SWITCHING FROM SNORTING/SMOKING TO INJECTION: How a person ingests a substance plays an important role in overdose risk. Injecting is usually riskier than other forms of administration, but an overdose can also occur when a person just swallows a single pill.

USING ALONE: If no one is there, no one can help. Overdose reversal can be effective 1-3 hours after use of the opioid, but the risk of fatality is high if the user is alone.

Prevention and Harm Reduction

For those who use substances, below are some safe tips to think about:

Let’s take care: Care for ourselves as we stay safe and supported; Care for our friends and colleagues as we have open conversations and share resources and supports; Care for our communities as we recognize the loss suffered by families and friends of those who have died.

If you want to participate in World Overdose day events August 26th - 31st, follow these links to a list of BC events:

Support Lines and Services

National Overdose Response Service (NORS): a peer-run, peer-led overdose prevention hotline for Canadians providing loving, confidential, nonjudgmental support for you, whenever and wherever you use drugs.

Call (Canada only): 1-888-688-NORS(6677)

BC Alcohol and Drug Information and Referral Service: Call 604-660-9382 in the Lower Mainland or 1-800-663-1441 toll-free anywhere in B.C. Available 24 hours a day.

Other Resources

Brave App: The Brave App for Apple and Android connects app users with someone who can send help while using drugs alone. Users set up an overdose plan that puts them in control, detailing how, when, and who is sent for help; supporters activate the plan if an overdose is detected.

Lifeguard App: The Lifeguard App offers a lifeline to people using drugs alone -- by monitoring the window during which an overdose can occur.

Opioid Overdose Risk Pamphlet

Stopoverdose: BC Overdose awareness and prevention campaign

TOWARD THE HEART – BC’s Harm Reduction Supports

Toward the Heart is a harm reduction resource of the BC Centre for Disease Control. “We believe every person has the right to the best health possible and should be treated with dignity and respect.”

Article: Canada's opioid crisis: How families of overdose victims are coping

Deena Data Journalist, March 14, 2022

Radio: The Early Edition with Stephen Quinn - CBC Radio (see August 18th, “Two parents with children lost…” Two parents with children lost to drug poisonings and members of Moms Stop the Harm speak about a new art installation commemorating the loss of loved ones, Sudden Silence: Hidden Voices.

BC Resources for Drug Checking and Supervised Consumption:

Drug and Overdose information sites:


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