The tragic spike in synthetic drug deaths this year was being remembered across the country today to mark International Overdose Awareness Day.
Provisional figures from the coroner’s office showed 40 to 45 people died from synthetic drug use in the year to June, compared to two in the previous five years.
If road deaths increased at the same rate as deaths through synthetic drug overdoses it would be considered a public health crisis, said Sue Paton, the executive director of Drug and Alcohol Practitioners Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ), in support of the day’s message.
The Salvation Army Addiction Services national director Lieutenant Colonel Lynette Hutson said the day seemed especially important after the recent deaths had provided a wake-up call to the toll this drug and others was having on New Zealand. She said it was the first year the New Zealand Salvation Army had marked the day since it was started by Salvation Army Australia in 2001 and it was holding a series of memorial services and events to highlight and educate people about overdoses.
Ms Paton said that death or injury as a result of overdose from alcohol and drugs of all kinds would be dramatically reduced if addiction was acknowledged as a health, rather than a moral or legal issue.
“By focussing on specific drugs like methamphetamine or opioids we are missing the bigger picture. If we are going to eliminate drug related deaths, including those from prescription drugs, we need to stop vilifying those that use them and encourage them to seek help for their health issue.”
She said that the current punitive approach to drug use was increasing individual, family and community harm in Aotearoa.
“Acknowledging that addiction is a health issue allows those affected by a friend or loved one’s drug use to access accurate information and support,” said Paton. “After all, humans are social beings and the essence and meaning in our lives is found in the connections we share with each other, with our family/whanau members and within our communities.”
“This is yet another reason why DAPAANZ supports International Overdose Awareness Day’s call to acknowledge the grief felt by families and friends remembering those who have died or have permanent injury as a result of drug overdose.”
Hutson said it had seen hundreds more and more partners and families coming to them for support in the past year because of their family member’s addiction.
Nicky, a Salvation Army Bridge staff member, was to be speaking at one of the events about friends who died, her own overdoses and more than 20 years drug free and helping others in recovery.
“The first time I remember hearing someone on the phone saying, “We’ve got a woman here who’s overdosed and died”. I thought they were talking about my friend. When I came to I was surprised to find it was me who had died.”
Although there is a lot of stigma still around people who overdose, Nicky says what she needed most when she was using was support, to know she was more than a user and there was more to life.
“What I would say to the people who are using is you are valuable, you are loved and you are in incredible danger, that you don’t know you’re in when you’re in that space.”
“I really thought if I died people would be relieved. I never realised life could be this good. I never realised you could have joy in just being alive.”
Some support services and healthlines
Alcohol Drug Helpline: general freephone 0800 787 797, text 868
Salvation Army Alcohol and Drug Support: 0800 53 00 00
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Ministry of Health links for: help for drug and alcohol problems