Did you know that in Ontario, three times as many young people are dying of overdose compared to a decade ago?
Across Canada, many teenagers are experimenting with drugs alone because they don’t feel safe telling others. But when people use alone, they overdose alone. To reduce youth overdose deaths we need to reduce the stigma that surrounds drug use. And to do that, we need peer educators youth can relate to because they share common experiences—like growing up in the overdose crisis.
This is why, in 2021, we came together to form Talk Overdose. The four of us, female Indigenous teens aged 14-19, deliver virtual and in-person overdose prevention education to youth groups. Our curriculum is for grades 7-12, because these years are when many youth are first introduced to opioids.
We include naloxone training, preparing students for what to do if they find themselves responding to an overdose. We also have guest speakers with lived experience of using unregulated opioids, and interactive workshops that demonstrate how to listen with empathy rather than judgment. We talk about overdose prevention in the context of mental health factors that often impact people in our age range, like body image or bullying.
We’ve struggled to find schools willing to host youth-to-youth peer education about overdose prevention and harmful stigma.
Since we began Talk Overdose in 2021, we’ve reached over 1,500 youth across Canada. We’ve also expanded to a second project delivering Indigenous culture workshops. When people feel connected to their culture, it has a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing and empowers them to take more precautions and fewer risks.
But we’ve struggled to find schools willing to host youth-to-youth peer education about overdose prevention and harmful stigma.
School administrators can play a vital role in facilitating these connections. Sometimes they will tell us that they support our message, but would like the students to hear it from adults rather than have us deliver it. But it wouldn’t be our message that way. And it wouldn’t be peer-delivered education.
As authorities often point out, youth are more likely to listen to their peers than to adults—especially when it comes to drug use.
Drug use can be a sensitive topic, and discussing it openly can be hard. But if we don’t talk about it, then people will continue believing harmful stereotypes. If schools want to combat youth overdose, they must make an active effort to connect youth with accurate harm reduction information.
Peer education is consistently shown to be an effective way to do this. And, as authorities often point out, youth are more likely to listen to their peers than to adults—especially when it comes to drug use.
Please help us build safer, more compassionate communities where youth aren’t made to feel ashamed of using drugs, or of talking about them. Education + empathy = Saving Lives.
This article was coauthored by Sarina Lyons, Taliah Lyons, Zara Lyons and Ayla Martin.
Sarina Lyons is a 14-year-old junior high student who is Swampy Cree-Metis, from northern Manitoba/Saskatchewan. She is the youngest of the four founding members of Youth4Youth Canada and is responsible for planning and executing fundraising events. When not making chocolate for an upcoming fundraiser or workshop, Sarina enjoys jigging, beading and playing piano.
Taliah Lyons is a 19-year-old Indigenous university student in the third year of her IT bachelor’s degree program. She is one of the founders and the team lead of Y4Y Canada, an all-Indigenous grassroots organization for youth. When not working, studying or delivering workshops, Taliah is passionate about art, music and taekwondo
Zara Lyons is a 17-year-old high school student and a member of the Metis Nation of Ontario. She is the alternate team lead of Y4Y Canada. Along with the other team members, she facilitates Kisac cultural workshops and Reducing Stigma Through Empathy (a Talk Overdose project workshop). In her spare time, Zara enjoys playing piano, jigging and martial arts.
Ayla Martin is a 15-year-old Miꞌgmaq high school student and a member of Listuguj First Nation. She is a founding member of Y4Y Canada and a facilitator for cultural and drug education workshops. When not playing competitive ringette or rugby, Ayla enjoys dancing (jingle and shawl) as well as making bannock for fundraising events.
Photographs courtesy of Talk Overdose