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Understanding the root causes of addiction this International Overdose Awareness Day

This International Overdose Awareness Day, experts from BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services explain why treatment and addressing the root causes of addiction are important parts of B.C.’s ongoing overdose crisis response.
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​This year marked the fifth anniversary of the opioid crisis being declared a public health emergency in B.C. As COVID-19 continues to impact our communities, particularly vulnerable and marginalized groups, overdose numbers are still on the rise. 

This International Overdose Awareness Day, experts from BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services explain why a focus on treatment, as well as the ongoing emergency response, is important. Understanding and addressing why people use drugs can help prevent overdose.

Understanding the connection between mental illness and substance use 

“Vulnerable people with substance use disorders are sick and need help,” says Dr. Vijay Seethapathy, the chief medical officer with BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. “Often, people with a substance use disorder will also experience a mental illness, and vice versa. This is known as a concurrent disorder. In order to help someone with a concurrent disorder get well and stay well, we need to address why they are using substances in the first place. Once we understand the root cause, we can treat these contributing factors alongside the substance use for better health outcomes.”

“We know that people often turn to substances to alleviate emotional pain and mental health symptoms. Substances can exacerbate a mental illness, and if left untreated, the cycle continues and worsens.”

There are well documented connections between trauma, mental illness and addiction. Often, as Dr. Seethapathy explains, one exacerbates the other.

“We know that people often turn to substances to alleviate emotional pain and mental health symptoms. If someone has experienced abuse, neglect, or other traumas, they may turn to substances to try to block out their feelings. In turn, substances can exacerbate a mental illness, and if left untreated, the cycle continues and worsens.”

Because of the connection between mental illness and substance use, BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services takes an integrated approach to treatment, treating mental illness and addiction together rather than separately.

"By getting to know an individual and their experiences, we can better understand and treat those underlying causes. Overall, it’s a much more comprehensive way to help people through their recovery.”

“Helping someone recover from an addiction only goes so far if they are living with an untreated mental illness at the same time,” says Dr. Jane Sun, a psychologist with BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services. “If we don’t treat the root causes of the addiction such as trauma or a mental illness, an individual may turn to substances again in the future. By getting to know an individual and their experiences, we can better understand and treat those underlying causes. Overall, it’s a much more comprehensive way to help people through their recovery.”

Getting help

People with a mental illness or addiction of any kind can speak to a doctor or visit a walk-in clinic for help. There are also dedicated mental health centres in each of the regional health authorities, as well as crisis lines for people throughout the province who need support. For those with more complex concurrent disorders, health authorities can provide referrals to treatment facilities that are tailored to specific treatment needs.

One such facility set to open in the coming months is the Red Fish Healing Centre for Mental Health and Addiction. Located on səmiq̓ʷəʔelə, formerly known as the Riverview Lands, this state-of-the-art, 105-bed facility will treat people with some of the most severe and complex concurrent disorders in B.C. 

RFHC chum unit hallway.jpg

“Everything about the centre, from the design to the treatments and programs we provide, has been developed with our clients’ needs in mind,” says Dr. Sun. “Clients have access to an interdisciplinary team of psychologists, physicians, dietitians, social workers, counsellors, Indigenous care coordinators, music, art, recreational and occupational therapists, and many more. With this care team, they can meet their own treatment and recovery goals, with all treatment based on their own needs and strengths. We also engage with clients and families throughout treatment, as we have seen that health outcomes are significantly better when clients and loved ones are involved in care.”

Treatment at Red Fish is trauma-informed, meaning that an individual’s traumas and experiences are taken into account when building treatment plans. This is an important part of addressing substance use issues, and is critical to ensuring clients can stay well after they leave the centre.

“Many of our clients have experienced traumas throughout their lives,” says Dr. Sun. “This includes the intergenerational trauma that comes as a result of the residential schools system and generations of Indigenous oppression. Our approach to care is built around incorporating and considering these experiences so we can better understand our clients, help them to understand themselves, and ultimately, enable them to develop healthy coping mechanisms for a meaningful life.”

 
 
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