The real questions about Cory Monteith’s death

When famous Canadian actor Cory Monteith was found dead of a drug overdose on July 13, it shocked the world, and drew international headlines.

It was a stunning development, as Monteith, 31, appeared to have his well-documented battle with addiction under control, having served a stint in rehab just a few months earlier, and seemed to most to be on the right path — in recovery and thriving.

Monteith was a successful, boyishly handsome actor, with a lead role on the hit TV show Glee, who was visiting his home country when he died alone in a Vancouver hotel room in the early hours of the morning, from what was later revealed to be a “toxic mix” of heroin and alcohol — a notoriously deadly mix, as both drugs are depressants.

The onslaught of media coverage inevitably included varying opinions and speculation on what could/should have been done to prevent his overdose. Calgary Herald columnist Licia Corbella went so far as to suggest that had Monteith simply not physically been in Vancouver that night, staying in an area so close to the Downtown Eastside and Insite, Vancouver’s legal supervised injection site — where, the writer bizarrely hypothesizes, he likely scored the dope he consumed on the last night of his life — he would still be alive today.

This misguided theory is shockingly simplistic, given all we know about the complexities of addiction and I would argue, dangerously wrong. And I was heartened to see the swift backlash to the column on social media. There are many misconceptions about this important issue that affects so many people, of every walk of life.

Addiction is an incredibly powerful force, the pull of which is something non-addicts can’t ever fully know or experience, but can seek to understand and empathize with.

Having watched several family members grapple with addiction, my heart truly goes out to Monteith’s family and friends. I know, to some degree, their despair, and how heart wrenching it is to watch a loved one succumb to addiction.

But learning more about addiction, from experts and the support of others in similar situations, has helped begin to make some sense of what seems so completely senseless.

Years ago, while in college, I studied the highly controversial, much-opposed opening of Insite, a harm reduction program that has proven over the years, through much research and cost-benefit analysis, to be of significant benefit to the community and to public health. Insite opened its doors in 2003, operating under a special exemption from the federal government, as a health-focused resource where people inject drugs safely in a controlled environment and connect to health care services and other community supports.

Research by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS has demonstrated the facility’s “profound positive impact on public health and order in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.” Researchers found that since the facility’s opening, overdose deaths have fallen in the Downtown Eastside, and no overdose at Insite has resulted in a fatality; that since 2007, new HIV infections among Vancouver injection drug users have fallen 50 per cent per year, and that use of detox programs has increased by more than 30 per cent among Insite users. The evidence has been published in the world’s leading scientific and medical journals.

Regardless, the Conservative government moved to shut down Insite a few years ago, taking its case to the Supreme Court of Canada, which, in 2011, ruled the facility would remain open. In its ruling, the court noted, “… the experiment has proven successful. Insite has saved lives and improved health without increasing the incidence of drug use and crime in the surrounding area.”

To suggest, as Corbella seemed to, that Insite is some type of narcotic drive-thru where an out-of-town addict such as Monteith can simply pop by and pick up drugs, or that he might be alive if he weren’t in a city with a notorious heroin district such as the Downtown Eastside is preposterous. News flash: drugs are also quite easy to find here in Ottawa and in every other major city, if you’re so inclined. Addiction is an insidious disease, resistant to treatment and prone to relapse. And addicts have ways of getting what they need, wherever they are.

Whether based in Vancouver or Los Angeles, it appears Monteith had been living a double life for some time, between his addiction and his successful acting career, and that he was — albeit quietly — headed down a dark path that would eventually consume him.

High-profile addiction deaths should provoke important questions: How do you know when your loved one is using drugs? If you suspect your loved one is using, what should you do? How do you compel an addict to seek help? Is it even possible to compel an addict to get help? What value is there, if any, to an intervention?

At a higher level, as a society, we need to ask how we can continue to work to help those suffering from addiction. What more can be done to address the root causes, as well as the genetic and biological factors?

It has never been more urgent, as we continue to see so many talented, vibrant people robbed of their precious lives and the world of their bright lights.

By Kelly Roesler
Source: Ottawa Citizen