Peer support workers on front lines of overdose crisis need support too, experts say

published on August 12, 2018 by Amy Smart in The Globe and Mail

rey 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.

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