A long-time Airdrie resident who lost her son to an opioid overdose last fall is hoping to bring more awareness to the issues of mental health struggles and addiction among the city’s youth.
Windsong Heights resident Cheryl Bulloch’s son Jacob lost his life following a fentanyl overdose in November 2020, at the age of 19. According to Bulloch, her son had struggled with mental health issues for years, turning to opioids as a coping mechanism.
“He was a shy kid but very loving,” Bulloch said. “He had a big heart, was very caring. I wouldn’t say he had a ton of friends but he was always a kind kid. He was the kind of kid who would do anything for anybody.”
Jacob spent three days in hospital after his overdose, according to a report from the Calgary Herald. After doctors determined the damage to his brain was fatal, he was taken off life support and his heart, lungs and liver were donated to other patients, saving three lives in the process.
According to Bulloch, a lack of support and resources persists for people struggling with internal demons.
“We need some more supports for mental health,” she said. “It seems whenever my son would go to the hospital for, say, a suicide attempt, they would say, ‘Deal with your drug issue and then we can deal with your mental health issue,’ or they would keep him for a day or two and then send him on his way.
“My son was treated poorly up until he was on his deathbed,” she added. “That was the only time he really received compassion.”
Bulloch's story is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Statistics from Alberta Health indicate that 2020 was the province’s deadliest year on record for accidental drug overdose deaths, with 1,128 reported fatalities. Prior to 2020, the year with the most fatal drug overdoses in Alberta was 2018, when 806 deaths were recorded.
At a local level, Airdrie RCMP laid a total of 19 opioid-related charges in 2020, 13 of which involved fentanyl.
“Airdrie is no different than any other Alberta community in regards to opioid addictions,” said Cpl. Gina Slaney, a media relations officer with the Airdrie RCMP. “There is an increased access to opioid-based narcotics at the street level and it is very addictive. The RCMP is committed to combatting this issue through intelligence-lead policing and greater enforcement efforts at local and provincial levels.”
Worsening mental health among youth has contributed to more teens turning to drugs and alcohol, according to Bulloch, who added she feels young people today have more pressure on them than older generations did.
“[Jacob] wouldn’t have started using to feel better if something wasn’t going on inside,” she said. “I believe a lot of people either drink or use drugs because of what’s going inside [their heads]. Even if it’s for five minutes, they want to feel better.”
She added access to drugs has also never been easier for youth, who are able to use social media platforms to contact dealers and schedule meet-ups.
“It just feels like in Airdrie, it’s very bad,” she said. “There was a drug problem before I moved here, and I’ve been here for 25 years, and I feel like nothing is being done about the mental health problems these kids are facing. The opioid crisis is taking off and it’s just everywhere.”
Bulloch’s friend, Julie Hazelwanter, who has called Airdrie home for more than 30 years, also lost a child to a fentanyl overdose. Her son William Hazelwanter passed away in October 2018, at the age of 35. Hazelwanter said William struggled with drug and alcohol addictions for more than 20 years.
Now, the two Airdrie residents are advocating for more mental health resources and support systems. Hazelwanter said they intend to paint an Airdrie sidewalk or pathway purple on Aug. 31, which is known as International Drug Overdose Awareness Day.
The pair also wants to help end the stigma of mental health struggles and drug addiction, according to Hazelwanter, who added they want to create a Facebook group in support of Airdrie residents who have gone through similar circumstances.
They also want to promote training for how to administer Naloxone – an antidote that temporarily halts the effects of an opioid overdose – and advocate for the continued operation of a safe injection site in Calgary.
“I just think it really needs to be brought out that it’s a problem in Airdrie,” Bulloch said. “It’s everywhere, but as much as people think Airdrie is a small little city and we don’t have these big-city problems, we really do. We have these drugs coming in from Calgary and our kids are getting these drugs at a young age. That needs to be addressed.”
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