If you have never heard of Dr. Trevor Corneil, that’s OK, but I sleep better knowing he is the man leading the team fighting back against the epidemic of overdose deaths in the Interior Health Authority.
He is also the health authority’s chief medical health officer and vice-president of population health, both which pit him squarely against this relatively recent scourge of overdoses and overdose deaths.
You wouldn’t know it from interviewing Corneil but he also a UBC professor who specializes in the treatment of marginalized and vulnerable populations; in broader terms that means drug addicts, street youth, transgender persons, people with HIV/AIDS and those with significant mental health diagnoses.
A pure academic he is not. His UBC biography points out Corneil provides care at the clinical level to Kelowna’s inner city residents with even a deeper focus on people who identify as transgender or gender variant.
I like interviewing Corneil because, besides being extremely knowledgeable with a deep empathy for society’s outcasts, he is keenly aware of the impact of his words and takes time to choose them. As a reporter, it simply makes it easier to write down what he says.
And he has a lot to say these days, especially about the health authority’s own opioid crisis (it’s centred in Kelowna and is markedly different than Vancouver, which is where Corneil cut his teeth).
When I interviewed him recently about the Kelowna-centric opioid crisis (60 overdose deaths this year and counting) Corneil began with his usual measured pace, trying to put into context the information contained in the city’s recently completed community overdose profile.
But by the end of the interview, the words were flying from his mouth, an indication of his passion for the subject but also his frustration with the mounting death toll and the inadequacies of the government's response.
While they’ve had some successes, the death toll keeps rising and Corneil frankly admits the Interior Health Authority urgently needs to increase its capacity for the type of treatment Kelowna’s marginalized community needs, although he points to a much larger cause that is both systemic and biased.
Of its $2 billion budget, Corneil says well over 90 per cent is directed by the Ministry of Health toward acute and community care when the leading killers of its citizens are drug overdose, suicide and alcohol, known collectively as mental health and substance use.
To be fair, the amount the province is spending in this area is increasing (Corneil says it should soon near 10 per cent of the budget instead of the six per cent it is now).
Bureaucratic inertia is an obvious culprit in a health care system of this size but Corneil agrees the stigma of mental health and drug addiction — he calls it the number one problem — is such that it still impedes treatment and influences spending priorities from the streets of Kelowna all the way to the halls of power in Victoria.
He’s too diplomatic to say it the way I would (although he doesn’t mince words).
For some reason, the life-and-death struggle with mental health and addiction that about one per cent of Kelowna's population is going through is meaningless to most of the rest of us.
While not an attitude exclusive to Kelowna, we seem particularly hardened to their fate. This, after all, is a town that could not be convinced to support a safe injection site, even as other Canadian cities are rushing to open them up.
Despite the soaring death rate in Kelowna, one of the highest in the country for a city this size, most of us would rather step over that motionless form in a downtown doorway than reach down and see if the person is still alive.
And if they overdose and die in a house somewhere in Kelowna (which is actually more likely the case) then it’s just another dead junkie who didn’t have the willpower to say no.
If someone does reach out for help, we brand them losers and make it systemically harder for them to get work and decent housing. We can’t seem to shake the attitude that what these people are going through is a crisis of morality, rather than a genuine medical affliction.
The irony here is there are effective evidence-based treatment options for helping these people but there is no cure for the indifference most of us have toward them.
— John McDonald is a long-time reporter, editor and photographer from the Central Okanagan with a strong curiosity about local affairs. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.