SUSAN* had a two-year-old daughter when her partner died from an accidental overdose 20 years ago.
Every accidental overdose death is preventable is the mantra of International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual global event held on Tuesday 31, August.
The Day is for people like Susan who have lost a loved one, friend or family member to remember them and to work on reducing the stigma associated with drug-related deaths.
Susan said it was tough to deal with her devastating loss and lied about his death, saying he was killed in a car accident.
“The thing I’ve found over the years is it affects the children,” she said.
“I can’t tell the kids how their dad died because if they talk about it at school, they might not be allowed to come over and play.
She finds it hard to understand why it [an accidental overdose] is a minor issue because it affects so many families.
“It is a mainstream issue for the community, but we are treated as a criminal issue in the legal frame,” she said.
“It is very hard to work against stigma when something is a criminal issue.
“If we dealt with drug use as a health issue and not as a crime, then the prisons would have fewer inmates, and there would be less homelessness.”
Pennington Institute has hosted Overdose Awareness Day for nine years in an urgent effort to galvanise the community and the political leadership to address overdose.
The institute connects lived experience and research to improve community safety concerning drugs, including alcohol and pharmaceuticals.
Its focus is on making individuals and families safer and healthier, helping communities, frontline services, and governments reduce harm, respect human rights and improve the rule of law.
Penington’s CEO John Ryan said the community is still trying to figure out how to manage drug problems when the overdose toll is a combination of illicit and pharmaceutical drugs and alcohol.
“In the last 100 years, we have used legal restrictions to manage drugs.
“The problem is the law and enforcement response to drugs has not been able to eliminate drug use from the community, let alone eliminate importation.
“There can be really harsh judgements about people who die from overdose because, partly as a community, we don’t have open and honest conversations about these issues.
“Pharmaceuticals cause fifty per cent of overdoses; you don’t have to have an addiction to have an overdose,” he said.
The image of someone in a tracksuit overdosing in an alley in the city is not the reality of an accidental overdose victim.
Insulin and an EpiPen, respectively, mitigate the risk of accidental death for people diagnosed with diabetes or anaphylaxis.
The same applies to those diagnosed with a drug addiction; Naloxone mitigates the risk of accidental overdose.
Because illicit drug use is considered a criminal offence and not a health issue, Naloxone is not readily available.
Amendments to the Drugs, Poisons and Controlled Substances Act in November 2020 allows people other than pharmacists to seek authorisation to supply Naloxone to people at risk of an overdose or who may witness an overdose.
Mr Ryan said Naloxone is readily available in all libraries in the USA in case of an overdose between the bookshelves, and most people will have it accessible if they move or live around regular drug takers.
“We need a national overdose plan,” he said.
Ana* describes herself as a past career drug addict when using took her to the point where she couldn’t care for herself.
For 30 years, she was a non-functional, daily, illicit drug user and part of a criminal sub-culture.
“I was that person in the tracksuit in the alley in the city,” she said.
If she did not give up using intravenous drugs, she was in danger of having both arms amputated.
“When I stopped, my recovery went through different phases; I had to learn how to deal with life issues,” Ana said.
“The stigma of criminalisation coupled with the need to adopt a pseudonym, as I come from a well-known family in our community, added to my sense of shame.
“It is an automatic cultural belief in the community that if you take drugs, you’re are a criminal, not someone with needing treatment for a health issue.”
For the past ten years, Ana has worked with women in the community with an addiction history.
Because of her experience, she relates to the women and can empathise with their situation.
“Part of what I do is working with them in dispelling shame; it takes years and years, and you don’t really fully recover,” she said.
Victoria’s Coroner’s Court issued a report in July stating more than 4,500 died by overdose in the past decade.
cohealth’s chief executive Nicole Batholomeusz said too many people are still dying from drugs because of the stigma attached to drug use.
“Behind every one of those numbers is someone’s son or daughter,” Ms Bartholomeusz said.
“The sad reality is that each one of those people could still be with us if they had access to the right services and supports.
“At cohealth [a Victorian not-for-profit community health organisation] we support people who use drugs with wraparound health and social supports, including GPs, nurses and social workers.
“We treat each client as a person first, rather than seeing their drug use in isolation.”
Two lives a week are saved by the work at the cohealth clinic in Footscray under the leadership of Program Facilitator alcohol and other drug programs, Danny Jeffcote.
He deals with drug users physical and social issues by responding to their health and welfare needs.
Each morning at the clinic’s front door Mr Jeffcote hands out clean needles and syringes to clients as part of a confidential and anonymous service.
Behind the door is a team of GP’s, nurses, community health workers and the offer of a shower and a laundry for their homeless clients.
Mr Jeffcote said accidental overdose is a massive risk for drug users.
“Drug users do not want to die and do not want to overdose,” he said.
“They want the good feelings from the drugs, not death.”
The use of and access to Naloxone reverses the effects of an overdose and saves lives.
“We provide training to users and their friends on how to look after themselves and their mates,” he said.
*Names changed to protect privacy