Skills Not Pills

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

LEIGHA COMER (BA ’14, MA ’17) suffers from chronic pain, and so is well aware of the problems surrounding the “invisible disability” affecting one in five Canadians.
Today’s opioid crisis, identified as a public health emergency by the government of Canada, stems from a lack of understanding of this pain and how to treat it, she says.
The result is rampant addiction that affects people from all walks of life, and costs the Canadian economy an estimated $60 billion a year in health care, lost wages and taxes, according to a recent report. While efforts to address opioid overuse are ongoing, the pain persists, inspiring Comer to focus on how pain management is taught.
In her MA thesis, Comer finds that Ontario’s pain education is scant, with “a paucity of information regarding pain theories, assumptions and medical models.” Failure to understand or take pain seriously has led to a proliferation of drugs over alternative methods like art therapy or mindfulness techniques. The resulting epidemic brings another layer of shame, with addicts labelled criminals and social outcasts.
Building on her earlier research, Comer, now a PhD candidate in York’s Graduate Program in Sociology, is investigating policies aimed at people who use prescription opioids to manage their chronic pain — specifically, a controversial Ontario program that requires patients to return used fentanyl patches to a pharmacy before receiving more.
Comer’s goal is to highlight the social determinants that shape chronic pain and opioid use, and to explore the damaging effects of criminalizing approaches to opioid reliance,
by interviewing physicians, pharmacists and people who use opioids to understand “how legislation like this works on the ground,” she says. “Otherwise, the problem will keep recurring.” ■