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Funeral home director talks about opioid crisis effects

Opioid-related deaths primarily targeting young people, taking terrible toll on grieving families
SooToday file photo shows memorial wall dedicated to people who have lost their lives to drug poisoning unveiled by the city in August.

Since the mid-2010s, it has become more common for street drugs in Canada, including Sault Ste. Marie, to be cut with strong opioids such as fentanyl. As the epidemic grew worse, it has been affecting various areas of the community, including funeral homes.

In 2016, Northeastern Ont. grieved 47 deaths due to overdose. SooToday reported this number went up by 500 per cent last year. 

The epidemic is primarily affecting the region’s youth.

This emerging phenomenon has built a sombre mood in local funeral homes.

“I know that, unfortunately, funeral homes across Ont. have seen an increase in opioid deaths in the past few years,” said O’Sullivan Funeral Home Director and owner Lisa Damignani, in conversation with SooToday.

She noted that funerals for young people who died from opioid poisoning are often attended by family members, who feel a sense of helplessness.

“Funerals for younger people that have passed from opioid deaths are always sad,” said Damignani. “The parents, siblings or even the children are angry that there was no help, or that the person was on the waiting list to see someone to get the process started for getting help.

“Oftentimes, the families blame themselves for not having done enough for the person or cutting the person out of their lives.”

Although opioid-related death can affect any demographic, Damignani pointed out that many of the deceased she sees are between 20 and 45 years old.

However, “addiction affects all age groups, races, religions and professions.”

In her funeral home, Damignani reported seeing more opioid deaths since around 2014, and there has been a spike “in the last two years.”

Health officials are warning that the epidemic has been getting worse since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which lines up with what the O’Sullivan Funeral Home is seeing. 

According to a CBC article published during the first COVID wave, “overdose prevention sites continue to run, but physical distancing guidelines mean fewer people are able to use the services.”

Locally, Dr. Jennifer Loo of Algoma Public Health told SooToday that “a pandemic and a mental health and addictions crisis do not go well together… [Sault Ste. Marie is] among the top four public health units with the highest rates of opioid-related mortality during the pandemic.”

The combination of a viral disease and a drug epidemic has left many hospitals across the country overwhelmed. 

City Council has erected a memorial wall for the victims of the epidemic.