A group of University of Calgary students has started a harm reduction platform in memory of a friend who died of a drug overdose.
Alex Ewanyshyn’s world was turned upside down two years ago when her high school friend Liam, 18, died of an accidental drug overdose. The family has requested that his last name and photos of him not be public.
“To lose him was a very big blow. It sent me into a spiral of grief for essentially the whole year of 2019,” said Ewanyshyn.
“I had a lot of questions about: what could I have done or could I have done something if I understood it better?”
Claire Hadford remembers Liam as kind and friendly.
“He was a really great kid. I know Liam struggled with family issues and his mental health, and of course, those are huge social indicators of substance use but nobody deserves to die of that,” Hadford said.
Now the two high school friends have joined another U of C student, Annabelle MacCrae, in spreading awareness of harm reduction, which acknowledges that abstinence is not always a realistic goal for some people.
“For the teenagers who are experimenting with drugs for the first time or for someone who might be susceptible to addiction as a way of coping with their trauma or self-medicating the pain they feel, there’s not a lot of programming geared towards teenagers because we always grew up with this abstinence-only, ‘just say no’ education when that clearly is not working,” Ewanyshyn said.
The friends established the Liam Project, a social media initiative aimed at young people. They share educational posts on Instagram hoping to connect people with community resources and reduce the stigma surrounding safer consumption.
“If you’re going to do drugs, be safe. Be around people you know who can take care of you. Have a naloxone kit. Test your drugs. Mostly do your research and educate yourself about what you’re doing and just make sure you’re safe doing it,” Ewanyshyn said.
“If you’re going to experiment with drugs, know your limits, test your drugs, especially with the poisoned drug supply that’s going around in the opioid crisis.”
The friends hope that by reaching out to young people who are experimenting with drugs, they can help prevent more families from the devastating results of accidental drug poisoning.
“I took on this work with Alex because I felt like I had a duty to my friend and to my community to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” Hadford said.
“I’m so happy with what we’ve been able to do with research and getting information out there in practical and simple ways that people can start using right away.”
Ewanyshyn said it’s important to have a youth perspective on harm reduction and drug use.
“We have the lived experience with having someone close to us pass away. We know first-hand the failure of the system in a sense for our friends. We want to fill in the gaps,” Ewanyshyn said.
In 2020, 1,144 people died of opioid overdoses in Alberta, according to the government.