“Joining the team helped bring me back to life” 

Special to KT by Jennifer Simpson –

The Advisory Committee for the Needle Exchange and Safer Inhalation program (NESI) at Somerset West Community Health Centre (SWCHC) is a vibrant mix of people. Steve is a former construction contractor who loves to cook, especially turkey on holidays. Mike worked in quality control for an airline and continues to be an active participant in supporting organizations that provide addictions and mental health services. Lisa views the world from the perspective of a mother, grandmother and caring optimist. Cheryl is currently celebrating being in recovery and her new found health.  Mia is an accomplished public speaker, mother, and grandmother who has sat on a number of advisory committees focusing on harm reduction.

SWCHC has always advocated that harm reduction programs such as NESI are preventive healthcare. Harm reduction considers that abstinence from the use of licit or illicit drugs is only one of a number of strategies to reduce harm to individuals resulting from the misuse of substances. Ron Chaplin, former Chair of the Ottawa Coalition on HIV/AIDS, summed it up by stating: “This is a community health issue. Make no mistake, our goal is to help people get off crack and other addictive drugs, but in the meantime, we also have to help prevent the spread of disease, and this is an effective program for doing just that.”

One of the mottos of harm reduction is “nothing about us without  us,” meaning that people who use drugs, known as ‘peers,’ need to be involved in the planning and delivery of the services they use. In 2011, as SWCHC planned to expand its harm reduction services and develop NESI, the program established the Advisory Committee.  The group consisted mainly of people with low incomes who had suffered addictions that resulted in personal problems ranging from health issues to homelessness and incarceration.

“This group acknowledged that through sharing and listening to the six different opinions, we could get to the important issues and determine what actions needed to be taken,” says Steve.

In the last four years, the committee has produced an impressive list of accomplishments. This includes overseeing three program evaluations, reviewing the interpretation of program data, helping develop a Peer Education program, and crafting targeted media messages. The group also provided feedback on the quality of the various harm reduction supplies distributed for safer drug use.

I found the group to be most helpful with their honest critique of the language used in evaluations and with their help framing issues to better reflect the lived experience of people who use drugs. It was a win-win for both groups. Steve believes the committee’s voices were heard through seeing changes in the community and neighbourhood services.

Often the conversation would turn to the stigma and stereotypes attached to drug use and the barriers these create accessing services and fully participating in the community. One of the members provided the following reflection: “Joining the team helped bring me back to life. I felt useful again and slowly I could talk with others. I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and was even able to get a part-time job. I credit my experience with the team and the facilitator as helping me feel much better. I am very grateful.”

Since 2012, the peer program at SWCHC has grown to include over 70 peers involved in public education and in the planning and support of NESI. Now that the peer program is firmly established, SWCHC has a variety of different mechanisms to ensure ongoing peer participation in program development and delivery. As a result, the objectives of the Program Advisory Committee have been realized and in June the committee was disbanded.

The committee has gone through a lot together, including the untimely death of its youth representative. Katie was a bright light on the committee with an artistic flair and insight into the quality of information provided by various websites and other social media.  She is very much missed. Still, Steve remarks on the profound difference the group has made: “I think we all agree that the Advisory Committee has changed Somerset West Community Health Centre and touched us all.”

Jennifer Simpson is a Health Planner at SWCHC.

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