Five years into British Columbia’s opioid-involved overdose public health emergency, the emotional and psychological burden carried by those responding to overdoses is increasing. The total deaths from overdoses in May 2021 bring total fatalities for 2021 up to 851, the highest ever recorded in the first five months of a year.

The public is informed — month after month — about the number of overdose deaths in B.C. but the number of overdose reversals, or the people saved and still affected by the opioid crisis, is not as widely shared. An overdose reversal is the preventative process of saving people from overdose death, most often with Naloxone, a medication that can stop the effects of opioids.

Overdose response programs at the community level are staffed either partially or primarily by people with lived experience of drug use. These less-specialized front-line responders handle much of the work in low-barrier supervised consumption sites and overdose prevention sites. But reports of burnout are emerging.

A study by Michelle Olding, a community-based researcher at the British Columbia Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), explored the challenges and inequalities experienced by peer workers at overdose prevention sites in Vancouver. It’s called And we just have to keep going”…Task shifting and the production of burnout among overdose response workers with lived experience.

“Peer overdose response workers do more than stop overdoses.”  — Michelle Olding, Why peer overdose response workers deserve more (May 25, 2021)

“We found that overdose response workers commonly reported burnout, which they attributed to the precarious and demanding nature of their work. While casual positions offered low-barrier employment, PWLE often lacked the wages and benefits enjoyed by other frontline workers, with limited supports and opportunities for advancement.”  — Michelle Olding, Jade Boyd, Thomas Kerr, Ryan McNeil, And we just have to keep going”…Task shifting and the production of burnout among overdose response workers with lived experience

Laura Shaver is a peer advocacy navigator with BCCSU and a board member with VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users). Laura says that “The role of a peer worker is probably one of the most energy-demanding jobs you can think of. Our lived experience is invaluable, and without us the programs can’t go on. Yet, the word ‘peer’ has become stigmatized and we’re not treated fairly.”

Laura Shaver spoke with People First Radio about her experiences as an overdose response worker with lived experience. Listen and/or download below.

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