International overdose awareness day was two weeks ago, but I'm still thinking though all the thoughts it's brought up for me. Every year thousands of people die leaving behind family and friends. But what support do drug services give the people left behind?
When I was 15 years old a friend of mine died, not due to overdose, just because of a tragic accident involving a tree and a powerline. I didn't witness it myself and I didn't see the aftermath (he lived in different city). But 25 years later it still effects my life. Imagine if instead of it being an accident it was because of some activity we did together three to four times a day, how would this have impacted my life, would I have been able to cope?
In a talk that John Strang gives on overdose he cites UK figures saying that 50% of heroin injectors have witnessed an overdose, and 15% of people have witnessed a fatal overdose. In austrailia it seems even worse with 78 percent of heroin injectors having witnessed an overdose (he doesn't cite figures of witnesses of Australian fatal overdose).
Even just looking at the UK figures that means a possible 3 out of every 20 injectors have seen a friend die. But if thats the case why don't we support people more following an overdose.
Supporting people though the bereavement process is a specialist skill, and not one that I suspect the bulk of drugs workers have. But if thats the case we are still able to refer to appropriate services, or at the very least point people in the right direction.
Or even better how about working with local bereavement services to develop effective care pathways so people can access effective support. This would of course be a two way process as there are people who seek support for bereavement who may have tried drugs to help them cope with loss. It may also be possible to have a skills exchange where each service offers training to the other.
Why this is important
There are a number of studies linking exposure to overdose to a future personal risk of overdose. So if we want to impact on the number of deaths per year we need to support people far more.
Does your service provide support for bereavement, and if so how effective has it been? Let me know in the comments.
Nigel Brunsdon is the owner of Injecting Advice.com. He's been working in harm reduction since the 1990's, although he's previously a frontline needle programme worker he now spends most of his time developing online resources for drugs workers and users.