McMaster social work students create group to educate youth on overdose prevention and safe substance use

A photo of a person standing with their back to the camera. They are standing under what looks to be a bridge or underpass that is littered with graffiti. A strong beam of light is shining into the area where the person is standing.

For McMaster social work students Olivia Mancini, Kayla Crabtree and Samm Floren, working with children, youth and families in shelters and social work settings was an eye-opening experience. They felt compelled to make a change and speak up for the young people in the community who use drugs.

They created the Student Overdose Prevention and Education Network (SOPEN), a volunteer-based program to teach youth about safe substance use and overdose prevention.

“I have worked across various organizations in Hamilton, including an emergency men’s shelter, housing first program and a withdrawal management program and have responded to countless overdoses,” said Mancini. “Working through the opioid epidemic and witnessing the devastating loss of life on the frontlines completely changed my perspective about how to provide services and education to people who use drugs.”

The primary focus of SOPEN is harm reduction, which means open and honest conversations about how to safely use drugs, how to use Naloxone — the medicine that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose — and how to spot the signs of an opioid overdose.

“We aren’t here to judge, or shame anyone when it comes to drug use,” says Floren.

“We are taking a different approach to the opioid epidemic through the provision of preventative education about overdose prevention and education. By collectively working together, we can develop better long-term solutions to the opioid epidemic.”

To date in 2021 there have been 816 reported incidents related to suspected opioid overdoses in Hamilton, and as of June 2021, 85 Hamilton deaths are probable or confirmed to be opioid related.

“Every overdose death is a preventable one,” says Mancini.

“It’s important that drug strategies for the community remain on track and services, social networks and safe spaces for people to use are readily available. The pandemic was a difficult time for folks to access many of these supports.”

Mancini, Crabtree and Floren all want to expand their efforts directly into school classrooms, where they can focus on having open dialogue in a safe space.

“We are currently in discussions with local organizations and will be hosting presentations about overdose prevention to youth programs at the YWCA in the new year,” said Crabtree. “We would love to be able to deliver these educational messages right to the students that need them, knowing that it has the potential to prepare youth to save a life.”

For those interested in learning more, or getting involved with the Student Overdose Prevention and Education Network, reach out on Instagram and Twitter or email

Related Stories