May 4, 2022

Survey finds lack of knowledge among UCalgary students about harm reduction resources on campus

Next phase of study by nursing students to focus on interventions to raise awareness of risk-reducing safety measures when using substances
Nursing Instructor Shannon Parker with student group
From left, Shannon Parker, Anna Novotny, Arsh Bamrah, Mike Richards, Mia Vescarellli, Carly Clarke, Bella King, Kiegan Hastie, Emily Fleming Courtesy of Shannon Parker

The statistics are alarming, indicative of a significant increase in opioid and stimulant-related harms in Canada since April 2019. A 95 per cent increase in apparent toxicity deaths (88 per cent of these deaths occurred in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario); a 27 per cent increase in opioid-related hospitalizations; and a 76 per cent increase in EMS responses to suspected opioid-related overdoses* are dramatic, but what may be even more shocking is what little UCalgary students know about what is available to keep them safe.  

“I was a little surprised at the lack of knowledge,” admits Mike Richards, a second-year student nurse, part of a group of eight who spent their winter practicum assessing UCalgary student health and learning about harm reduction.

“We found a number of students we surveyed didn’t know naloxone kits were available at the campus drugstore, for example  the store still had a lot of them or that drug contamination test strips are available for free at the university.” 

Harm reduction is a public health response that advocates working with people to reduce negative consequences from substance use. UCalgary Nursing instructor Shannon Parker says the overdose epidemic in Alberta is extremely concerning:

The number of drug-related deaths in the province has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Seeking help is challenging due to stigma and misunderstandings about harm reduction principles and effectiveness.

The students worked with Yasmeen Nosshi, UCalgary’s harm reduction support adviser, who wanted to gain a realistic view of the student experience and uncover the strengths and opportunities of the university’s approach to substance use.

“That meant meeting students where they are and students speaking to students,” explains Mia Vescarelli, another member of the group. “It was maybe easier for us as students to speak to other students because there was less of a hierarchical barrier or a fear associated with talking to peers.”  

Early in the practicum, the campus was a “ghost town,” adds Vescarelli, so much of the face-to-face happened when students returned after Reading Week. “We were able to talk with about 50 students in our first day. We had already done a thorough assessment and talked with people working on mental health and harm reduction initiatives, including the UCalgary Recovery Community, The Liam Project, campus security and residence services and also community partners like the Calgary Police Service and Alberta Health Services.”  

The student nurses determined “there was the lack of knowledge about naloxone and the test strips,” Richards says. “We also found impeded access to health services: There were many broken links on the UCalgary Student Wellness website that we uncovered as we were trying to find resources. 

Social isolation leads to unhealthy choices

Finally, the social isolation related to COVID and academic pressures can result in students making unhealthy choices. “Because of the pandemic, many people are isolated and may use drugs to cope, coupled with increased drug contamination with fentanyl and other substances,” says Richards.

We are concerned students don't know about the free naloxone and fentanyl test strips available on campus. Students can access these at multiple places to keep themselves and their friends safe.

The group concluded that education and awareness would be the most advantageous, not just for those on campus, but for the entire population. However, it's not that easy.

“This is an invisible issue; we really relied on a lot of anecdotal knowledge,” says Richards. “You need the numbers, the stats, to get more resources and funding, and people don't want to talk about substance use because of the stigma.”  

For now, Richards and Vescarelli say their clinical group is proud of what they have discovered and confident in the results. They plan to pass on their findings to another student nurse group to implement interventions.

Our interventions will increase awareness of safer substance use such as how to access fentanyl test strips and naloxone,” says Parker. “Many students don’t know the safety measures they can take to reduce risk for themselves and others when using substances. Our group has identified ways to improve awareness, reduce health risk and improve health.”  

*Statistics reported are from Health Canada’s Opioid and Stimulant-related Harms website (March 2022) and reflect comparison between April 2019 to March 2020 and April 2020 to March 2021.