By Brier Cook
Substance use in Canada is a complex health and social issue with devastating consequences. As reports of opioid addiction and overdoses exploded in the early 2000s, the crisis became a leading public health and safety concern. Things only worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic when communities across Canada began reporting record numbers of opioid-related deaths, hospitalizations, and emergency calls.
Could one solution be as simple as treating our most vulnerable community members with compassion? Ottawa pharmacist Mark Barnes thinks so.
In an effort to support students struggling with mental health challenges and substance use, Barnes worked with Carleton University to establish the Respect RX Pharmacy Perseverance Bursary in 2021. He hopes that in addition to providing financial support to students in need, the bursary will contribute to a broader understanding and awareness of mental health, trauma and substance use within the Carleton community and beyond.
“People who have faced challenges associated with trauma, mental health, and addiction encounter so many barriers,” says Dillon Brady, Carleton’s manager, student conduct and harm reduction. “This bursary will help to offset the financial impacts they may have endured so they can focus on their academic and personal wellbeing.”
Responding to Canada’s opioid crisis has required collaboration between all levels of government, stakeholders, and individuals with lived experience to develop evidence-based drug policies. It comes as no surprise that post-secondary institutions also have an important role to play when it comes to educating the public and reducing stigma.
According to Barnes, it’s essential that the community’s approach is respectful and one that doesn’t look down on people who use substances.
“We must remember that those suffering from substance misuse are almost always trying to prevent pain,” says Barnes.
Mark Barnes, Director of Community Outreach and Overdose Prevention at Respect RX Pharmacy
Barnes turned to overdose prevention full-time in 2013. He and his partners opened the first Respect Rx Pharmacy in Vanier that year where he currently serves as the Director of Community Outreach and Overdose Prevention.
He has become one of Canada’s leading experts on the opioid crisis and uses his knowledge to advocate for a respectful approach to substance use and mental health treatment. He introduced the Patch-for-Patch Fentanyl Return program in 2014 which, by law, requires Ontario patients who receive a prescription for fentanyl to return their used patches to a pharmacy before receiving new ones.
Recognizing that young people are a vulnerable population, Barnes’ Respect Rx Pharmacy has expanded its outreach to Carleton University and other post-secondary institutions. The goal: to equip the next generation with critical addictions treatment education.
“It is important that Carleton is known as a welcoming place that accepts students as they are and has many resources available to support them on their journey, irrespective of what they may be struggling with or have overcome in the past,” says Brady.
To date, Barnes and his team, in partnership with the Office of Student Affairs, have trained over 1000 Carleton students and staff to use Naloxone – a potentially life-saving treatment that can temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Members of the Carleton community can participate in live Naloxone training sessions delivered by Barnes and receive a Naloxone kit afterwards. Those who cannot attend training sessions are still able to participate in a free self-guided session at Barnes’ website, naloxonecare.com/.
Giving back to students was next for Barnes. At Carleton, the Respect RX Pharmacy Perseverance Bursary will provide financial assistance to students who have experienced trauma, mental health distress, or addiction, but continue to persevere and maintain a satisfactory academic standing in their program despite their struggles.
“Disclosing a mental illness isn’t a character flaw,” says Barnes. “It was time for students who were in hiding to meet their issues head on, go to school, and get better. They needed to be met with compassion.”
You can help students persevere today by making a contribution to the Respect RX Pharmacy Perseverance Bursary.
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