Methadone Saves Lives campaign builds much-needed awareness of methadone maintenance treatment

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It started with severe intestinal pains. The prescription drugs were soothing—Percocet, OxyContin, morphine. They dulled young Pete’s physical pain, but they also calmed another pain, a mental pain that included depression, anxiety and panic attacks. The drugs made the young man feel like superman. Soon he added alcohol to the mix of highs.

Betty-Lou Kristy watched helplessly as her son spiraled downward into an addiction the depths of which she could only guess at. He finally confessed to his mother his multiple addictions and his many unsuccessful tries at quitting. Before he could get help, Pete died of a multiple drug overdose. Betty-Lou realized too late that her son was defeated in each of his attempts to quit by the severity of his withdrawal symptoms; withdrawal symptoms that methadone maintenance treatment (MMT), unavailable to Pete at the time, is meant to alleviate.

For Sean Winger, a need for opioids turned into a “four-to-five pill-a-day habit” which was costing him $300 a day to “stay normal.” “That’s when I phoned a methadone clinic,” Sean says.

Too-often stigmatized as being ‘for junkies’ or only for heroin users, methadone is a prescription medication that helps manage the cravings and eliminates symptoms of withdrawal for people with a dependency on opioids.

The truth is that most people seeking methadone maintenance treatment have become opioid dependant by using prescription medications they’ve obtained legally or illegally. Medications like OxyContin, Percocet, or morphine. And while the need is growing across Ontario—an estimated 30,000 people require treatment—the availability of methadone maintenance treatment (MMT) services has been limited.

Thus was born Methadone Saves Lives and its website home – MethadoneSavesLives.ca, a province-wide effort led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to increase the availability of methadone maintenance treatment and to combat the stigma of opioid addiction that too often bars people from seeking help, and medical professionals from offering it.

CAMH received funding from Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care to work in partnership with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, the Ontario Pharmacists Association and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario to develop professional training tools, raise awareness of the benefits of MMT and engage community stakeholders.

Dr. Peter Selby, Clinical Director of Addictions for CAMH, highlights the importance of the MMT model when he says, “We see opioids as a growing problem in our communities. Methadone Saves Lives is a concrete step to fight stigma and to promote the use of a treatment practice across Ontario that comes from evidence-based research. We need to change attitudes toward methadone and we need to promote a combination of treatment, counselling and support to an at-risk population.”

Methadone Saves Lives is rolling out in four Ontario communities – Thunder Bay, Halton, Ottawa and Chatham-Kent. The campaign compliments the work of CAMH’s regional consultants and their community partners to develop a plan to address the lack of treatment and related issues, according to Christine Bois, Project Manager and CAMH Program Consultant in Ottawa.

From Sean’s point of view, that’s essential. “If the distribution of OxyContin was as closely monitored as the distribution of methadone, far fewer people would develop opioid addictions in the first place, and the current need for MMT would not be as great,” he says.

Today, both Sean and Betty-Lou volunteer with the Halton Methadone Committee, relating their personal experiences to help build local support for a MMT facility. “Methadone maintenance treatment is a proven, effective way out of this trap,” Betty-Lou recently told Halton Regional Council. “Had this been available for Pete, I know he would be standing before you as proof of the ability of methadone maintenance treatment to transform and save lives.”

After calling a methadone clinic, Sean says the results were dramatic. “Within a week I was able to quit,” he says, “Now I’m at McMaster in Addiction Studies and taking anthropology at Wilfred Laurier.”

Another way CAMH is building awareness of methadone as a treatment option for opioid dependence is by screening the Sky Works documentary Prescription for Addiction.

The documentary examines the problem of opioid dependence and the role of methadone maintenance treatment from multiple perspectives: those who have become addicted to opioids due to chronic pain; front line health workers working with injection drug users; and addiction service providers who are struggling to help the growing number of people coming through their doors.

As Methadone Save Lives proceeds, the volunteer speakers, the comprehensive training course, the video, as well as the brochures and website will continue to be available to inform people and hopefully improve the opportunities for them to access treatment.

For copies of Prescription for Addiction or Methadone Saves Lives material, contact Kathryn Weiser, CAMH, at kathryn_weiser@camh.net or (416) 535-8501, ext. 6655.