Tackling the problem of crystal methamphetamine use among gay men in Vancouver has taken a step forward with the recent introduction of several programs to help users, ex-users and those close to them cope with the effects of the drug on their lives.

The programs, including peer discussion groups, an intensive treatment program and a support group for Aboriginal two-spirit people, were among the topics of discussion at a Mar 30 community forum for the Gay Men's Methamphetamine (GaMMa) working group held at the False Creek Community Centre.

The forum was an opportunity for those involved in GaMMa's outreach project to report back to the community on their accomplishments. The goal of the outreach project, which began in the fall of 2005 and officially wrapped up with the forum, was to help health care providers and community organizations to better address crystal meth use by gay men through prevention, detox and treatment.

The project included both outreach activities and a needs assessment conducted by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. The outreach activities included a 20-week period during the summer of 2006 in which volunteers visited more than 100 venues and special events around Vancouver, mainly targeting populations of gay men potentially at risk of crystal methamphetamine addiction. The outreach component also included activities targeted toward two-spirit people.

GaMMa working group co-chair Sue Pearson says the project meets an important need.

"It was really the first time that harm reduction information about crystal meth use was disseminated so widely in the community," she says. "Our outreach volunteers started conversations and broke down the stigma attached to meth use."

The new programs available to those affected by meth include two peer-led discussion groups starting this month at Gayway, the gay men's resource exchange. One group, Life After Meth, will be for former crystal meth users, while the other, Three's Company, will be for family, friends and partners of men who use meth.

Another service is an intensive day and evening treatment program from Vancouver Coastal Health for gay men who are battling crystal meth addiction. The program, which is temporarily operating at the Three Bridges Community Health Centre on Hornby St, uses cognitive behavioural therapy and includes a recreation component and alternative therapies.

Two-spirit people affected by crystal meth also have access to a support group, beginning in April at the Gathering Place Community Centre on Helmcken St. The group incorporates traditional smudge ceremonies and talking circles, says Dolan Badger, who led the two-spirit outreach component of the GaMMa project.

The GaMMa forum also included presentations by some of the project's outreach volunteers, including Ron Allen. Allen has seen the effects of crystal meth use first hand. A former lover of his was a methamphetamine user and Allen's experience with GaMMa gave him an opportunity to try helping this person.

"Once my outreach stint ended, I brought him a pamphlet on meth use harm reduction techniques and discussed it at length with him and that was very important," says Allen. "He was the only person whose crystal meth use I was directly caught up in. Because of my personal connection with him and because I knew that he trusted me implicitly, I felt that I should share that [harm reduction information] with him."

Dr Thomas Lampinen, project lead for the GaMMa needs assessment, says the formal report on the project will be released sometime in April. Lampinen estimates that roughly 2,600 gay men in Vancouver used crystal meth last year and says a new approach should be taken when it comes to the connections between meth use and HIV.

"People tend to focus on crystal meth use leading to unsafe sex and new HIV infections. However, it's much more common that people with HIV start to use crystal as a way of coping with their own special issues, such as HIV-related fatigue and depression," he says.

Lampinen says that interviews conducted as part of the needs assessment revealed a high prevalence of mental health disorders among gay men who use crystal meth and he sees treating underlying mental health issues as one of the keys to defeating meth addiction.

"In many cases, these conditions were in fact the reason men first began using crystal meth," he says, noting that men would use meth to medicate themselves so as to better cope with their disorders.

"I think what people need to realize is that crystal meth use among gay men is not so much hedonism gone awry as it is another example of the use of substances to manage an underlying mental health problem."
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