First Nations women had 800% more overdoses: 'horrific' crisis' new B.C. data
First Nations overall five times more likely to overdose, despite being just 3.4% of population, health authority and mental health minister reveal.
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The statistics are as shocking as the "horrific" crisis they measure, British Columbia's new mental health minister, Judy Darcy, warned Thursday.
First Nations women in B.C. were eight time more likely to overdose on drugs than non-First Nations women, and First Nations overall were five times more likely to overdose. As for fatal overdoses, the news was equally grim: one-in-ten B.C. drug deaths last year was First Nations.
The newly released data on how their communities have been slammed by the ongoing opioid overdose epidemic — although a year late because of difficulties collecting and co-ordinating the information — showed that the impact was extremely out of whack with the wider population.
Just 3.4 per cent of B.C. residents are First Nations, so the impacts of deadly opioids are clearly disproportionate and "particularly devastating" for their communities, Darcy said.
"Until this horrific crisis is behind us," she continued, the government's "focus" remains on "saving lives," but she emphasized that it's crucial to tackle the "root causes" are driving First Nations substance abuse in the first place.
Dr. Shannon McDonald, deputy chief medical health officer with the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA), couldn't explain why Indigenous women were significantly overrepresented, and said there's likely no single factor.
"Many of our women have been traumatized by unspeakable experiences," she said. "We're talking about a pain problem; people are taking care of their pain."
"We are concerned about our women … it's very, very clear that we are being disproportionately impacted by this overdose crisis."
What she does know, however, is that unlike the general population where the vast majority of overdoses are younger men, amongst First Nations people it's actually 40-something women hit the worst.
So when she is called to speak in communities after an overdose or a drug death, she often is asked to warn young people about the risks.
"My response is, 'No I need to talk to mom and dad, and in some circumstances I need to talk to grandma and grandpa.'"
Thursday's announcement and data release was the culmination of reforms several years in the making, the FNHA revealed, in which health authorities, the Coroner's Service and other agencies "listened" to concerns raised about culturally "inappropriate" practices, delays returning relatives' remains to reserves causing distress, and other roadblocks to cooperation with First Nations.
But as a result, although the overdose data is significantly later than for the wider population, Thursday's event was a sign of big progress.
And Thursday's announcement came with a plan of action that includes more traning and access to Naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, improving 9-1-1 service on reserves, "reduce harm" to drug users by "increased accessed to safe use sites," more "Indigenous-specific" treatment beds, and boosting mental health supports and "emotional resilience."
The key learning, according to Darcy and B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall — who declared a province-wide public health emergency in April 2016 — is to ensure that First Nations communities and culture are at the centre of efforts to improve health.
"I don't pretend to have all the answers," Darcy said. "But what's crystal clear, what we know, is that what's happening with the overdose crisis in First Nations must be absolutely central to our response."
But while the statistics are "horrific," the press conference offered little solutions and no spending announcements, other than a committed "to listen," Darcy said, and to try to understand and respect Indigenous communities in responding to a crisis that is on track to take an estimated 1,536 lives across B.C. if the current rate continues.
And asked about substance addiction treatment beds in the province, Darcy admitted that "there aren't enough beds period," let alone for Indigenous peoples who very likely face a lack of treatment beds too.
"That's our goal," Darcy said, "ask once, get help fast."