Local duo teams up for overdose awareness
Sooke supports International Overdose Awareness Day with an educational event
Ben Goerner and Melanie Cunningham. Photo: Zoë Ducklow / The Westshore
Last year, Ben Goerner and Melissa Cunnigham took a brave step forward to share their stories about overdose and addiction. After Cunningham lost her son to drug suicide at 20 years old, she had a hard time sharing her experiencing with others. Within the years of trauma, her second son who lives in Victoria also became addicted to drugs. While she still has a relationship with him, there is not much Cunningham can do to help. For 28 years, Cunningham has been living with the stigma.
“I believe there's a myth still existing that drug addiction and alcohol addiction crime only happen to families who have that same lifestyle, and that is absolutely not true,” says Cunningham, who now volunteers and works for a number of groups—like Moms Stop the Harm—supporting addiction and overdose recovery.
Kelowna-local Goerner, a retired clinical counsellor who moved to Sooke, had been working with the family of a young man named Tyler who was addicted to drugs; on Jan. 6, 2016, Tyler died of drug poisoning. Afterwards, Goerner lost 50 patients between 2016 and 2019 before he retired because of the trauma and grief.
“I ended up losing 50 clients in my last five years of work, and which was ridiculous because before that I had lost maybe two or three in 20 years, so it was very clear that the poisoning of the supply was creating a huge pandemic type disaster within the community of people who use drugs,” says Goerner.
Wanting to end the stigma, the pair came together and hosted an overdose awareness event to support anyone needing it. The event coincides with International Overdose Awareness Day which is Aug. 31, and with the ongoing poisoned drug crisis in the community, it is an important day to support. August kicks off International Overdose Month, and the Purple Ribbon Campaign, and is a good time for communities to educate themselves on awareness. Cunningham and Goerner’s event will be hosted at the town round centre on Aug. 31 for its second straight year.
“This year I had a young lady reach out to me saying that she wanted to give back to the community because Sooke’s Shelter Society, of which I am the president of, helped her a lot when she was homeless and in addiction and helped her find the pathway that she wanted to go into recovery,” says Cunningham. “She has since been 18 months sober and she's now able to reach out and say, I want to give back to the shelter, society and the community for doing what they did to help me in my recovery.”
Included in the Aug. 31 event will be naloxone training and information on resources, along with music and food. Being able to learn how to use naloxone is a vital skill that anyone can put in their toolbox, as Goerner says that he can’t count the times it’s given someone another chance.
BC at risk
“When you look at the stats per capita, a lot of the overdoses are happening more and more in the rural areas because there are no resources like naloxone or safe consumption or anything like that,” says Goerner. “This is something here—you likely will come across this in your lifetime, if not within the year.”
Cunningham says that this year’s theme honours those fallen to the war on drugs and toxic drug overdose crisis, first responders, medical personnel working in the field, and many more who are first responders to overdose.
One of the aims of @OverdoseDay is to raise awareness of evidence-based strategies and tools that can help prevent #overdose harms.
Read about signs of overdose, first response, use of #naloxone and more on our new page dedicated to Overdose Prevention:
— International Overdose Awareness Day (@OverdoseDay)
Jul 21, 2023
“This illness, the addiction illness, happens to all kinds of families, all kinds of walks of life; addiction is like cancer because everybody knows somebody in their family that has cancer,” says Cunningham. “Nowadays, everybody knows somebody in their family that has an addiction or a substance use issue, but it's not talked about as openly as cancer.”
Toxic drugs are the leading cause of deaths in ages 10-59, as 2023 goes on to be one of the worst years in history for drug-related overdoses in BC. Just in June, the Greater Victoria area lost 15 more people to toxic drugs bringing the total up to 235 drug-related deaths on the Island. With continuous difficulty to support prevention and awareness, it is events and days like these that Goerner hopes people attend.
“Please know that harm reduction and treatment are all in the same ball field,” says Goerner. “We need to use them together, they complement each other.”