March 18, 2019

Video series turns stories of personal tragedy into potent call to action

Bereaved parents advocate for scaled-up harm reduction for those with drug addiction

Phil Haug, Donna May, Kym Porter, and Petra Schulz are united in purpose. Each are parents of children who died either directly or indirectly because of drug use — and they say enough is enough.

These four parents are not alone. Every day, 11 Canadians die from causes related to using opioids, mainly overdoses, according to federal government data. And behind this alarming statistic are the friends, families, and communities left behind.

Today, researchers from the University of Calgary, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Alberta, along with advocacy groups from across Canada, launched the video series See the Lives, featuring bereaved parents who have become advocates — with a message that their children are more than just statistics, and that more needs to be done to prevent further deaths.

“We are really losing a generation,” says Petra Schulz, from Edmonton and pictured above, is featured in one of the four videos and whose son, Danny, died of an accidental overdose in 2014 when he was 25 years old.

“The victims of this crisis are important. They matter. And what I have learned in the time since Danny died is that their deaths are preventable.”

In each video a parent sits, listening to the audio of a letter they have written to their child since their death. The videos end with a call to action for scaling up harm reduction efforts to provide a safe drug supply, and to end the shame that prevents people from reaching out and getting help. A new website hosts the videos along with the full stories of the featured parents, with additional resources for those who want to get involved.

Sharing the stories of those impacted by addiction is a powerful way to challenge stigma, according to Dr. Rebecca Haines-Saah, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), and See the Lives project lead.

“We hope that these videos will spark change,” says Haines-Saah, who is also an assistant professor in the CSM’s Department of Community Health Sciences. “The intent is to challenge the stereotypes, stigmatization and discrimination that people with addictions and their families face.”

Tragically, says Haines-Saah, the stigma of addiction is a huge barrier to families when seeking support because they are silenced and shamed.

“When a child is diagnosed with a chronic illness or cancer we have walkathons or charity events. It’s not the same level of support around substance use or mental health,” she says.

While Haines-Saah decided to work with parents for this project, she notes that they are just one of the groups lending their voice for change. There are also people in law enforcement and politics who are allies, physicians, and most importantly, she says, the people who are using drugs and experiencing this crisis first hand.

Schulz agrees.

"We must remember, everyone who is affected by this epidemic is somebody's child, somebody's parent, brother or sister,” she says. “They have something important to contribute, and their voice needs to be part of the solution."

For Schulz, the See the Lives project builds on the advocacy work she has taken up through Moms Stop the Harm, a cross-Canada network she co-founded in the wake of her son’s death. 

Moms Stop the Harm advocates for a multipronged approach to address the overdose crisis, including enhanced harm reduction measures such as supervised consumption sites, providing access to a legally regulated safer drug supply to those who use problematically, and ending the stigma surrounding drug use and addiction.

While no amount of advocacy will bring her son back, Schulz says she now works on behalf of other Canadian families, so that they won’t have to experience the same grief. “Danny is leaving a legacy. We need to learn and change from his death,” she says.

See the Lives is based on a research partnership between researchers from three educational institutions, O'Brien Institute for Public Health, University of Calgary; School of Public Health, University of Alberta; School of Nursing, University of British Columbia; and two community-based volunteer groups, Moms Stop the Harm and mumsDU. It is part of a larger research project, Seeing Beyond the Numbers – What families want you to know about opioids, stigma, and harm reduction, funded through an Opioid Awareness Grant to Communities: Ministry of Health, Government of Alberta. Digital video and creative services for the project were provided by Hoopla Media in Edmonton.