Vigil raises overdose awareness

Afirst-of-its-kind vigil to remember people lost to the tragedy of licit and illicit drug overdose and to acknowledge those that are left behind – minus the stigma, has been held in Mount Gambier. 

The vigil occurred last Tuesday during International Overdose Awareness Day, a global event which started in 2001 in Australia and has grown into the world’s largest annual campaign to end overdoses. 

Organised for the first time locally by the Limestone Coast Drug Action Team, the vigil aimed to raise awareness of one of the world’s worst public health crises.

In addition, it aimed to stimulate action and discussion about evidence-based overdose prevention. 

The day also provided an opportunity for people to publicly mourn loved ones in a safe environment, some for the first time without feeling guilt or shame.

Action team chair Senior Constable First Class Jade Hill spoke at the late-afternoon vigil thanking attendees for paying their respects to the lives lost to overdose.

“Thank you for your attendance, to remember and acknowledge those who are no longer with us and for supporting those in our community who have experienced the devastating loss due to overdose,” Senior Constable Hill said. 

Substance Misuse Limestone Coast project officer Sophie Bourchier had her speech delivered on behalf of Mount Gambier City Councillor Sonya Mezinec as she was unable to attend the vigil. 

Cr Mezinec read a story from International Overdose Awareness Day’s founder Sally J Finn that revealed the importance of being understood for families who have suffered a death due to overdose. 

After a mother’s son had passed, Ms Finn reported the mother’s recovery, in part, was because other people understood what happened to her son was a tragedy. 

It was a death she had a right to grieve. Tragedies of this nature form part of what is an international public health crisis.

Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2021 by the Penington Institute reveals that for the sixth straight year, more than 2000 Australians have died of overdose.

There were 2227 overdose deaths in 2019 – 1644 of which were unintentional – while deaths from overdoses have outnumbered the road toll since 2014.

“Unintentional drug-induced deaths are not evenly distributed throughout our community – they are proportionately more common in rural areas,” Cr Mezinec said. 

“This is Australia’s silent crisis. We need to get creative about starting a much-needed conversation. Although it’s difficult to identify all the factors that have contributed to this dramatic increase, the key issues stand out.”

These issues include the lack of access to affordable and evidence-based harm reduction interventions and dependence treatments, including pharmacotherapy.

These interventions and treatments are particularly important for regional people. 

Cr Mezinec added not enough attention was being paid to the fundamental drivers of overdose, including trauma and lack of opportunity.

“The dominance of law enforcement to manage these issues in the war on drugs has not been successful, but it continues, supporting the shame and guilt that people who use and their families feel,” she said. 

“It is not difficult to educate and convince people drug use is a health issue and not a moral issue. The more people realise the scale of the impacts of these issues on our health system … then we can move to improve the conversations we have around the uses of drugs and alcohol.

“This is why events like this are so important and International Overdose Awareness Day is a crucial part in moving the conversation on to what and how we can do to better support people and their families.

“Drug and or alcohol dependence is not something an individual chooses as a life goal and we must do better in reducing the stigma surrounding these issues. 

“Changing the labelling language, which is often used when talking about dependents or the people who use is critical to removing blame and shame and we have to get better at it.”

Joining both Senior Constable Hill and Cr Mezinec speaking at the vigil were community leaders from Life Without Barriers and Rotary Mount Gambier. 

Life Without Barriers Tim Brennan delivered a Welcome to Country at the vigil and said his role as a drug and alcohol counsellor had opened his eyes to how difficult some people have it.

“I just think it’s important for us to be able to come together in these times, even in this kind of weather, to be able to show our support and remember those who have passed,” Mr Brennan said. 

Rotary Mount Gambier president Ray Herbert said his organisation was committed to doing whatever it could to make Mount Gambier a better place.

“There is more to be done, but we are a willing partner and doing what we can for the community to make it a better place,” Mr Herbert said. 

“This involves this particular activity and it also involves mental health and other activities. We like to try to make a difference.”

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