The numbers are staggering.
According to the latest data from the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU), when the figures are finalized, 2021 will likely be the deadliest year the region has ever seen for opioid overdoses.
According to the SMDHU figures, it’s likely there will be at least 200 documented fatal overdoses for 2021, up from 133 deaths the previous year. The 133 deaths recorded in 2020 was already the highest number of overdoses on record by a significant amount.
The SMDHU says there were 107 confirmed and probable opioid-related deaths in Simcoe Muskoka in the first seven months of 2021, which was more than 50% higher than the 69 recorded in the first seven months of 2020. This includes 24 deaths in March of 2021, the most in any month since the beginning of the opioid crisis in 2017.
Simcoe Muskoka, and Muskoka specifically, sit well above the provincial average for opioid-related deaths since 2017. In Muskoka alone, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Muskoka-Parry Sound Branch reports last month there were seven fatal overdoses in a single week.
“It’s devastating,” says Diane Brown-Demarco, Executive Director of the CMHA Muskoka-Parry Sound Branch. “Since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve experienced an increase of more than double the numbers of individuals seeking crisis or mental health support and a 36% increase in the numbers of people seeking addiction support.”
As the pandedic has continued, the effects of prolonged stress and isolation are becoming increasingly evident on mental health, she says.
“Over a few months people are generally able to stay resilient but after two years those coping strategies begin to wear down,” says Brown-Demarco. “Something you might have been able to handle two years ago, you might not be able to anymore. For people who use substances to cope…increasingly they’re reaching for the bottle or the pill.”
Fentanyl is far and away the drug responsible for the most deaths in the area. In 2020, an estimated 90 percent of the overdose deaths in Simcoe Muskoka involved fentanyl.
The SMDHU indicates that opioid poisoning deaths in Simcoe Muskoka are highest among adult males between 25 and 44 years of age.
Making matters worse is the staffing crunch that’s left organizations like CMHA short on workers and swimming in increased demand for services, says Brown-Demarco. Currently, Brown-Demarco says 30 percent of the positions at CMHA Muskoka-Parry Sound Branch remain vacant, including half of their RN positions.
“More people need help than ever and we have fewer people to provide it,” she says. “It adds a great deal of stress on those who are left.”
Brown-Demarco says they recognize the staffing crisis runs across the healthcare system and there’s no easy solution to the problem.
“The cost of the pandemic on the healthcare system is unimaginable,” she says. “You can’t divert resources from hospitals but…we’ll keep advocating and doing the best we can with the resources available. From a mental health perspective, we’re nowhere near the recovery point from this pandemic. We’re just wading into the deep end now.”
Brown-Demarco says most people in the community are likely experiencing mental health or addictions impacts from this pandemic.
“The stress of everything from the cost of living increases, isolation, lack of social and physical activity and the fear for loved ones affects all of us,” she says. “Mood changes, anxiety, depression, are just below the surface for most and we are all getting very tired of trying to cope.”
She says anyone struggling should seek help.
“Primary care physicians and family health teams have access to refer to online resources or counselling,” she says. “CMHA is always able to respond to anyone who reaches out and helps reduce crises and find support.”
You can contact the Muskoka Parry Sound CMHA crisis line at 1-888-893-8333.
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