"i'm afraid to leave the house, because i'll hear about another death": the ongoing crises and the toll on frontline workers

The branch supervisor of the Port Hardy Library
made these, on her own initiative. We have given
away more than 50 of these "crisis keychains" so far.
Front and back pictured here.
The Port Hardy community has been besieged with a series of untimely deaths, many of young people. This has been going on for several years, but last year it escalated sharply, and this year has been even worse.

In 2023, 21 people died from non-natural causes. This year so far, there have been 13 such deaths. This in a community of about 4,400 people. 

Almost all the victims have been Indigenous people.

These deaths are caused by toxic drug poisoning, by alcohol addiction, by car accidents in which alcohol was involved. There have been a substantial number of suicides. 

Many in the community are trapped in a cycle of trauma. Among people already using substances, in lives riddled with trauma, there is no healthy way to process these fresh wounds. The connections among intergenerational trauma, personal loss and grief, mental health, and substance use are an almost seamless web. 

It is heartbreaking.

This crisis hits frontline workers very hard, and library workers are part of that. Libraries are often the only public space left for the people most impacted by these multiple crises. Many of our customers have died. We have lost people that we used to see every day. Others that we see every day have lost sons, daughters, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles, aunts. They bring their grief and trauma to us daily.  

People within the community are intimately connected through extended family and Nation ties. As one of our beloved regulars said, "I'm afraid to leave the house in the morning, because I fear I'll hear about another death."

Two of our regulars, a couple, lost a child in an alcohol-related car accident. Before this, they were working hard at rehab. They were clean and sober for the longest time they had ever managed. Then this. 

One of them is the person I performed CPR on in 2019. He uses our public computers, watching videos of his son and sobbing. Imagine processing your grief in public. 

The other constantly gets into fights, hurling her anger and grief at everyone around her.

The woman whose dog I adopted -- Cookie's first mom -- died a few months ago. I saw her at the library every single day since starting work here five years ago. That was the only funeral I have attended so far. The room was full of elders, burying one young person after the next.

Library staff is constantly exposed to this grief and at the very same moment, must cheerily assist customers with their book searches, their holds, their checkouts, their tech questions. Must give a happy and upbeat storytime. Must simply move on with their day.

For many people, trauma combined with substance use equals aggressive and menacing behaviour, so we're always dealing with that, too. We call the ambulance. We (reluctantly) call the police. We call a mental health outreach worker, but they are overtaxed and can rarely respond. 

We're trained in Naloxone. One day each week, a harm-reduction nurse is available at the library to train anyone in the community. We have drug-testing strips. 

We've had training in crisis prevention and trauma-informed practice. We've had recognition and support from First Nations elders. We've discussed and debriefed and done way too much self-care. 

Some staff respond by going into overdrive, trying to help more. Some can't think straight. Some fold into themselves. Some pretend it doesn't hurt. I'm an expert at compartmentalizing. I'm expected to take care of my staff, but the demands of my job don't allow too much time for that.

This week, staff and I are attending a two-day workshop on suicide prevention: ASIST. It's being offered jointly by Island Health and the First Nations Health Authority. Demand was so great that many people couldn't get in, and a second round is being offered a bit later this year. It's wonderful that so many people are interested. It's devastating that the need is so great.


Amy said...

This is devastating to read. I cannot imagine what the community is going through---and what you and your staff are going through. I never would have imagined that libraries get involved in so much personal care. Bravo/a to you and your staff for all you do.

laura k said...

Thank you, Amy.

With God's Help said...

Thank you for sharing this. I'm sorry that we as a profession often lack the skills to support customers and each other in these situations.