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‘You’re like in a war zone’: Report says frontline workers in B.C. opioid crisis risk burnout, PTSD

WATCH: A new report says workers on the frontline are experiencing a mammoth amount of stress and trauma in dealing with addicts. Nadia Stewart has the story.

In September of last year, harm reduction advocates Sarah Blyth and Ann Livingston set up an unsanctioned pop-up safe injection site in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside sensing that the city’s opioid crisis was only going to get worse.

“We started right in it at 12 hours a day, seven days a week because there’s something about doing it any shorter, it’s just not showing that you’re serious,” Livingston said. “We could see it gradually increasing and then, bang, it quadrupled in one month.”

READ MORE: Vancouver drug users will now be able to test their drugs for fentanyl

Livingston says the day-in day-out battle to save lives has taken a toll on her and her colleagues.

“You’re like in a war zone — your eyes go dead, you just march along, you get home, your whole purpose in life is to get enough sleep, get enough nourishment, and that’s it,” she said.

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“Then you go back out there because there’s no letting up. There was no letting up in terms of the deaths. They just come one after the other.”

A new report highlights just how critical the situation has become for frontline community workers who are often on the ground before police, fire and paramedics arrive.

Globalnews.ca coverage of B.C.’s fentanyl crisis

Vancouver’s Central City Foundation talked to more than 25 community leaders and frontline workers from 21 different organizations in the Downtown Eastside and beyond. It found two out of three organizations say the opioid crisis is having a direct impact on staff and the work they do.

“There is the true challenge of the disruption of their everyday work … they might be running the Dugout Drop-In [Centre], or the drop-in at the women’s centre and they have to stop to help resuscitate someone who’s gone into overdose and then they have to go back to work,” Jennifer Johnstone, Central City Foundation president and CEO, said.

Help is typically available through employee assistance programs but not every worker takes advantage of them.

“We know the streets, we hang around alleys, we’re not scared, you know. [We’re] tough,” Livingston said. “We don’t get things like that. We don’t get post-traumatic stress disorder because, you know, we’ll be OK.”

READ MORE: Vancouver police seeking $700K for specialized safe drug-handling facility

“The other challenge is that most of the frontline workers, especially in the Downtown Eastside, all have two or three jobs,” Mebrat Beyene, executive director for WISH Drop-In Centre Society, said. “So, it becomes difficult for them to manage their time… and when to access supports and services.”

Johnstone says more needs to be done by governments, communities and philanthropists to help support workers and their organizations.

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“My concern is less for right now, groups are coping,” Johnstone said. “But in the long run we need to find deeper pockets, we need to be more flexible in how we support these organizations.”