23 people in Grande Prairie lost their lives to a fentanyl-related overdose in 2018, the second highest rate in the province. The rate per 100,000 residents in Grande Prairie was 31, which is behind only to Red Deer at 43.8 per capita.

However, the number for Grande Prairie is down four reported overdose deaths year-over-year from 2017. That’s when the city had the highest rate of all major cities in Alberta.

HIV North Executive Director Melissa Byers says without the mitigating factors available to community-based programs, last year could have been much worse.

“We reported over 500 opioid overdose reversals, so that’s potentially 500 lives saved through this program out of our office alone.”

One other seemingly accidental drug overdose death related to an opioid other than fentanyl was also reported in Grande Prairie in 2018.

Since Alberta Health started maintaining records, the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in Grande Prairie has nearly tripled in just three years.

Byers believes the reports of those lost should be eye-opening enough for those in the Peace Country but says a lack of empathy for those struggling in the grips of addiction is potentially harming those wanting to get help.

“I think it’s easy for people to say if they haven’t experienced the other side of the fence. My frustration is more in the attitude prevalent in people who can’t put themselves in somebody else’s shoes.”

Byers says she has seen many people continue to use after experiencing withdrawal from opioids, which only makes the dependency worse.

“People who have described withdrawals to me describe the feeling of every bone in your body breaking; the worst flu you’ve ever had times a million,” she says “You go through insane withdraws, you’re sick for days and that stops people from seeking help.”

The city closest to Grande Prairie in size and geographic location, Fort McMurray, saw 11 overdose deaths in 2018.