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Edmonton is on track to exceed its 2021 record for the highest number of opioid-related deaths as the province’s capital continues to produce the highest numbers across all municipalities.

The latest data provided by the province updated in February shows an additional 49 opioid-related deaths in November 2023 — bringing 2023’s total to 608. In March, final numbers will be finalize for the 2023 year and, given past data, the likelihood of Edmonton surpassing its 2021 record of 626 deaths is high.

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The city’s drug poising death rate is the highest it’s been since 2021, sitting at 61.1 per 100,000 people compared to 59.9 per 100,000 people in 2021.

Committee receives report on mental health and addiction

At Edmonton city council’s community and public services committee meeting on Monday, city administration provided a report in collaboration with Alberta Health Services on the current status of mental health and addiction services in Edmonton.

According to the report, overdose poisoning and substance misuse sat at No. 2 and No. 3 among the top five problems occurring in Edmonton’s emergency departments, right behind depression and suicidal ideations.

AHS operates 13 emergency departments across Edmonton. From 2022 to 2023, more than 90 per cent of mental health and addiction patients visiting the department presented as urgent or higher. There were approximately 35,000 mental health and addiction-related visits.

Coun. Aaron Paquette brought forward a motion recommending that on behalf of city council Mayor Amarjeet Sohi would write a letter to Mental Health and Addiction Minister Dan Williams outlining city costs for providing services related to mental health, addiction and drug poisoning incidents, along with possible opportunity for collaboration including provincial funding. The motion was carried unanimously and will be presented at the next city council meeting.

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“It is possible that with their workloads that sometimes ministers may not be aware of a lot of the challenges that municipalities or the people in municipalities face, and sometimes they may not be aware of the dire situation in our streets and how that affects our budgets and our economy,” Paquette said. 

“One thing that wasn’t included in this motion, which I would have loved, but there’s no way to quantify it at this point, is the cost to our community and the cost to our businesses when we have these unaddressed crises.”

Hunter Baril, press secretary to the minister of mental health and addiction, said the province is seeing “significant” reduction of fatalities through the Alberta recovery model which addresses all forms of addiction.

“Opioid addiction is not the only challenge Alberta faces, as we see significant harms as a result of addiction to other substances including alcohol and cocaine. It is important to note that while opioids remain a concern, fatalities from prescription drugs are at their lowest in recorded history, fatalities as a result of alcohol are the lowest in recorded history, and fatalities as a result of cocaine are the lowest in recorded history,” said Baril. 

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Alberta breaks opioid-related death records

The province has surpassed its 2021 record of 1,634 opioid-related deaths with a new high in 2023 of 1,706. In November 2023 Alberta added 138 opioid-related deaths to its count.

Across the province, other municipalities are seeing record-breaking numbers — a telltale sign of the impact the opioid crisis is having across Alberta.

Calgary reached a record-breaking high when October 2023 numbers came out surpassing the 2021 record of 503 deaths. In November 2023 the city added 40 deaths to its count, making the current high 581.

Lethbridge, with a population of 104,000 people in southern Alberta, furthered its record high in 2023. An additional three opioid-related deaths added to its count last November brought the current death total to 115 — surpassing the 2022 record of 77 deaths.

Giri Puligandla, with the Canadian Mental Health Association Edmonton, told committee on Wednesday there needs to be a renewed focus on including those with lived experiences with substance misuse and mental health issues when it comes to finding a solution to the issue.

This isn’t about service providers. This is about all of us as individuals, as neighbours, as friends, as coworkers, family members. We need to really focus on the experience and make it simpler,” said Puligandla. 

“I’m a strong believer in the primacy of lived experience, I think there’s an overemphasis on the clinical side. If we turn that around and we actually had people with lived experience driving the change that we need to see, we would start to see huge changes because that’s really the perspective that’s been missing.”

X: @kccindytran

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