Prof. Teri Derksen says an unforgettable image of children playing overdose games in a park became the vision behind a university research project to help kids whose family members have been affected by opioids.
The description she heard at a recent community meeting about someone witnessing youngsters acting out an overdose at a playground in Nanaimo, B.C., led her to ask: “What about the children?”
Derksen said the compelling account struck her deeply and she couldn’t let go of the thought of children trying to cope with the addictions of loved ones.
“It’s stuck with me because it was such a powerful image.”
Derksen said the description served as a catalyst and a constant reminder: “What are we doing?”
The child and youth care professor said it also gripped several third-year students who have developed projects at Vancouver Island University focused on children, families and communities dealing with opioids.
B.C. averages about four drug overdose deaths a day. The coroner’s service reported 1,436 deaths in 2017. Almost 65 per cent were in private homes or buildings.
“We have to wonder how many children are in those homes,” Derksen said. “Some of these children may be witnessing, directly, the overdose.”
Students Emma Gillis and Abby Lise started class practicum projects that focus on children caught in the overdose crisis. The projects include two outreach programs for children, families and others in Nanaimo to talk, meet and play in a safe area.
A daycare program called Shine gathers once a week for 90 minutes of games and arts and crafts. It provides a sheltered environment where children can talk about their own experiences.
The students also formed partnerships with social and government agencies to hold public meetings and offer services to families.
Gillis said behind every overdose statistic is a person with family and friends who are hurting. She and Lise saw few supports for children, family members and others close to opioid users, she said.
“We really do need to really shine light on the impact on children,” said Gillis. “They have, a little bit, slipped through the cracks. Why are we not spending more of those preventative measures on children? Why are we not gearing them towards children?”
Carrie Barker, a director at Nanaimo and Area Services for Families, said the opioid crisis goes deeper than just the individuals using drugs.
“What’s bursting the bubble here is that it’s happening so broadly across the community,” she said. “This project is phenomenal because it’s saying: What about the children, and how are we considering how they may be impacted by this?”
Children find ways to cope, but they suffer, Barker said.
“There are children grieving the loss of a loved one,” she said. “There are those on the other end of the spectrum who are hearing every time the radio goes on more statistics about people in their community who have died.
“All children in the community are impacted by the health and well-being of their neighbours, families and community members.”
Stephanie McCune, an Island Health substance use expert and instructor at Vancouver Island University, said the programs help to move the focus of the opioid crisis beyond individuals.
“Where do we go from here?” she asked. “How are children thriving, surviving? What are communities doing that is acknowledging the role and impact on families? It’s a different part of the conversation.”
B.C.’s Ministry of Children and Family Development said the safety and well-being of children is its priority.
“We know that the opioid epidemic has had a devastating impact on families and communities throughout the province and we have taken a number of steps to respond to the crisis,” it said in a statement.
It cited a plan to help caregivers, practitioners and support staff respond to youth at risk, or parents who might be using illicit drugs. It also provides direction and access to training on how to use the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press