Rian and Tyler were only eighteen months apart. When they were young, their mother used to call them “Seek” and “Destroy”; what one didn’t think up, the other would. From covering themselves head to toe in flour to picking all of the wallpaper off the walls in timeout, Rian and Tyler’s mischief was underlined by their selflessness—they lived from the heart. “They were sweet, kind, sensitive, and had this unbelievable urge to help others.” Helen Jennens remembers their great senses of humour, their affection, and how at the end of every conversation, they never forgot to say ‘I love you’.
Helen Jennens lost her two sons, Rian and Tyler, to overdoses in 2011 and 2016. Trying to live the best way she could, Helen’s grief journey was complicated, painful, and driven by a sense of urgency. After Tyler died in January 2016, Helen started advocating with Moms Stop the Harm (MSTH), of which she is now on the board. MSTH is a network of Canadian families impacted by substance use-related harms and deaths. They advocate to change failed drug policies and provide peer support to grieving families and those with loved ones who use or have used substances. Right now, MSTH is lobbying hard for decriminalization and safe supply. Initially driven by a desire to honour her boys, Helen continues her work with MSTH today because she doesn’t want their group to keep growing. “I don’t want other mothers to walk this path. I don’t want other mothers to feel this horrible pain.” Helen was the 12th member to join MSTH—today there are over 1300 members.
MSTH is a national organization, with representation across Canada, in British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and more. Chances are, you are already familiar with the work of MSTH. In 2018, a photograph capturing fifteen moms dressed in all black, holding 4 foot white crosses went viral. From a two-page spread in the Globe & Mail to bus ads and digital billboards, the image was everywhere. It isn’t hard to see why. The photograph, overlooking a lake in Kelowna, was a stark reminder that behind the rising number of overdose deaths in Canada are hundreds—if not thousands—of grieving families. Since this photograph was taken, more than 8 other communities across Canada have followed suit. MSTH hopes that images like these will spark important national discussions around drug policies, harm reduction, and stigma:
We’re just trying to educate the general population on substance use disorder and how it can affect anyone. You know it’s not just the people that are living rough and on the streets, it’s happening to everyday, ordinary people in their own homes. And so we’re trying to change the language, break the barriers of stigma, and start treating people with respect and dignity. The have a medical disorder. It’s not a moral issue. So it’s hard to sway the public to the way we think. You know everyone believes that substance use disorder is a choice and harshly some of them believe they deserve what they get.
It is a narrative all too familiar for Helen. Travelling back and forth to Vancouver, Helen spends a lot of time in airports. One night, while she was sitting and waiting for her flight with a glass of wine in hand, a man sat down beside her; he just so happened to be a first responder. “Wow, you guys must be so busy right now with the opioid crisis”. With no hesitation, he responded: “Can you imagine six of us going in to a bathroom in Tim Hortons and trying to revive this junkie who’s overdosing in the bathroom?” Surprised, Helen asked if he believed in safe consumption sites, which would reduce the likelihood of that happening. He did not.
So then I dropped the bomb. ‘Well you know, I’ve lost two boys to overdose.’ And then we had my conversation, where the language has changed and they’re not junkies, and I had two really beautiful boys with issues that are no longer with me. And you know the guy’s colour is changing and his body language is changing. And at the end of the conversation I say to him, ‘So maybe the next time you go into one of those washrooms, you’ll be reminded of me and you’ll know that kid has a mother somewhere hoping and praying that you can save him.’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah. I’ll be thinking of you.’
This is one of the driving forces behind Addiction Matters creating “Taking the Pledge” (an initiative supported by MSTH), a promise not to use destructive and judgemental language against people who use drugs, “that I will always be respectful and show people dignity and look at them as a human being with a health issue.” Dehumanizing language can easily alter our perceptions of others. Simple phrases, comments, and terms can completely change the way we approach difference and suffering. The failed war on drugs has left a legacy of stigma and misunderstanding for those suffering from substance use disorders. As a result, most people have a glaring lack of education on what addiction is and who it impacts—even Helen had her own misconceptions. When Rian started self-medicating at 15 years old, Helen thought it was likely a phase: “I didn’t know what opioid use did to the brain. I didn’t know that it rewired it, and I didn’t know how virtually impossible it was to get off it.”
Reducing the stigma around substance use and educating people on harm reduction are two vital aspects of what MSTH do; but beyond changing the conversation, Helen believes that there needs to be a more comprehensive view of health and recovery. Helen explained that becoming abstinent from a drug like heroin or other opioids requires both mental health and addiction treatments, and more often than not, it is an urgent matter. “People that use drugs, if they ask for help, the window of opportunity is very small, and if we can’t get it for them right then and there, they’ll be off using again.”
Helen’s son Tyler suffered from PTSD. Tyler was living in Thailand during the tsunami in 2004, which destroyed his home, his business, and killed many of the people he knew. “He came back to Canada with post-traumatic stress. We didn’t recognize it. And of course, now I have post-traumatic stress. I was there with both of my boys when they died, and the things that happen to you with post-traumatic stress, you don’t understand.” PTSD is a serious mental health disorder that can worsen with time if it is left untreated.
In 2010, when Tyler ruptured his Achilles playing football, he was sent home post-surgery with a bottle of OxyContin. Helen explained that after Rian died, Tyler’s dependence escalated to heroin. Helen explains that through her experience with both Tyler and Rian, it is now obvious to her that mental health and substance use are “dance partners”.
Mental health people would tell me ‘Well this isn’t a mental health problem, this is an addiction problem’. […] The addiction people would tell me ‘Well this is not just an addiction problem, it’s a mental health problem.’ And they’d bounce him back and forth, with neither one really doing anything, when they should’ve been working together, because it’s both.
After extensive experience working through the healthcare system with both Rian and Tyler, Helen believes that every pillar of your personal health team should be in conversation with one another—especially when it comes to prescription medication. Helen explained that both Rian and Tyler were recklessly prescribed multiple drugs, leading her to become a major advocate for the mandatory use of PharmaNet. PharmaNet allows authorized health care practitioners to access information about all prescription medications dispensed to you by any BC community pharmacy.
I can go to a physician tomorrow that I’ve never ever seen before, maybe requesting some kind of medication, and he can look at my Pharmanet records and decide if it is appropriate or if it may interact with something else I am on. So I think it’s a great tracking system and particularly for people with substance use disorder because they are drug seeking. So I got very aggressive demanding the use of PharmaNet, because not all doctors use it, and there’s a $10 fee to have it.
Ten dollars is a small price to pay for a potentially life-saving program like PharmaNet. Unfortunately, policy around treating substance use disorders is often short sighted. A common argument against funding initiatives like safe injection sites and programs like PharmaNet is that they are costly. “They don’t understand that every tax dollar you put into harm reduction saves twelve to our health care system. And it saves money in policing, in first responders. If you can convince people that it’ll cost you less to help these people than to let them continue on carry the way they are, you’ll change some minds because we’re always thinking about the cost.”
Once the conversation began to draw to an end, I asked Helen, ‘If you could have everyone hear one message, what would it be?’ She didn’t hesitate. “It wasn’t a choice and moral failing, and it can happen to anyone. And always the bottom line is, if you took away your judgment, you have to remember that a mom and dad, and whoever, has lost someone they love. And that your judgment just adds pain to the loss. But I always used to say, my boys died doing something they hated not something they loved. You know, most people aren’t using drugs to get high, they’re using them to get by.’