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Stephen’s story: ‘He might be here today if he would have had a safer supply’

Brenda and Richard Gaunt’s first child, Stephen, was an active and inquisitive toddler, prone to follow his curiosity quite literally wherever it led him.

“He’d run out the door and I’d have to chase him down in my underwear,” his father recalled, with a chuckle.

Stephen was born in Calgary and his family moved to Winnipeg in 1986 for work, before returning to Alberta and settling in Edmonton. He was the oldest of three children.

“He was a smart kid but he was shy, self-conscious,” his mother said. “He was a bit of an introverted kid and had a little anxiety, I think, growing up in school.”

One of Stephen’s childhood friends was a young boy with Down syndrome named Kent. While other children shied away from Kent, Stephen would invite him over to the Gaunts’ house to play.  

“He accepted everybody,” Richard said of his son.

“He was very a compassionate child,” added Brenda.

“Right through to the end, actually,” Richard said.

Stephen’s end came on Feb. 26, 2023. He died alone in his apartment after consuming methamphetamine contaminated with fentanyl. He had naloxone with him, but no one to administer it. He was 36.

A slim man with large forearm tattoos and a shaved head pets a dog sitting in his lap.
Stephen struggled with schizophrenia and addiction for more than a decade before his death in 2023. (Submitted by Brenda Gaunt)

Stephen’s parents said he had just been accepted into a treatment program that January and was willing to participate — but was told it would be 10 weeks before his space would become available. He started using again while he waited to start the process.

Stephen was one of at least 1,706 Albertans who died of opioid poisoning last year. That works out, on average, to more than four deaths each and every day in 2023, the deadliest year on record for the province.

“He knew the risks but, at that point, he had no control,” Brenda said.

“He might be here today if he would have had a safer supply or supervised consumption.”

“Or earlier admission,” added Richard. “Or earlier diagnosis. Or better mental health care.”

“He slipped through the cracks,” said Brenda. “Over and over again.”

WATCH | Stephen’s story: ‘He might be here today if he would have had a safer supply’:

A Toxic Year – Stephen’s story: ‘He might be here today if he would have had a safer supply’

Stephen was an active, curious toddler and a smart, shy child. He was also an adult who struggled with addiction. His parents say he knew the risks of street drugs but his addiction was too strong.

Stimulants, struggle and stigma

As he grew into adolescence, Stephen developed a love for the outdoors. He was partial to Tofino, B.C., in particular, after several camping trips on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Like his father, he developed a passion for bicycles. Richard and Stephen twice rode the nearly 300-kilometre route between Jasper and Banff. It’s a challenging, bucket-list ride for many cyclists that winds through some of the most picturesque sections of the Alberta Rockies.

After undergoing a minor surgery when he was in Grade 9, Stephen decided he want to become a doctor.

“And so he buckled down in high school and started really making the grades and graduated with honours,” Brenda said.

A teenage boy and a woman pose for a photo while sitting on rocks with trees in the background.
The Gaunt family made annual trips, often to the West Coast, and Stephen developed a love for the outdoors as a teenager. (Submitted by Brenda Gaunt)

Stephen started a bachelor of science degree at the University of Alberta but had trouble concentrating on his post-secondary studies. After a couple of years, he realized he might not make it into the medical program.

He changed tack and enrolled in the respiratory therapy program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“So he was prescribed a stimulant, Dexedrine, for ADHD, which I guess helped him out initially,” said Brenda.

“But it was the beginning of the end,” said Richard. “He became addicted to it.”

“And he had his first psychotic episode,” added Brenda. “And from there on, it was just kind of a struggle.”

“My mother, his grandmother, was schizophrenic. And we believe that he sort of triggered a bit of that in himself with the use of the stimulants over the time period that he first started. There is amphetamine-induced psychosis, which happens, I guess, fairly often with people. But I think over time his delusions and different way of thinking just kind of stuck more and more.”

For the ensuing decade and a half, Stephen would be in and out of hospital. He changed his last name, at one point, in an attempt to evade the stigma of mental illness.

Throughout, his struggle with addiction would persist, as would his parents’ struggle with finding their son the supports he needed.

‘A real downward spiral’

Brenda and Richard have lost track of how often Stephen was admitted to hospital over the 14 years since his first psychotic episode.

He also made numerous attempts at rehabilitation, but relapsed each time.

A year or two before his death is when, Brenda said, her son had “taken a real downward spiral.”

“He was really struggling, to the point of becoming homeless there for a couple of months,” she said.

“Basically, the addiction took over,” his father said.

A young man in a tuxedo, kneeling in front of a tree, with his arm around a dog.
Stephen graduated high school with honours but struggled with concentration in university and received an adult ADHD diagnosis. (Submitted by Brenda Gaunt)

In October 2022, during a stint at the Alberta Hospital, a psychiatric facility, he was diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder and received a community treatment order.

After that, Stephen started regular doses of antipsychotic medication, which helped for a time, until he started drinking heavily again, his mother said.

In January 2023, they asked their son if he would give treatment another try, and he agreed.

“He was ready,” Richard said.

An agonizing wait

Brenda said they took him back to the Alberta Hospital, but there was a “huge lineup for detox” at the time, “so we took him home and detoxed him there.”

“We continued to work towards getting him into treatment, and he was finally accepted but was told it would be 10 weeks,” Richard said.

“By this time, you have to realize that when a person knows they are ready, they are in deep need, and they know they’re on the edge.”

As the weeks passed, Brenda said keeping Stephen away from drugs and alcohol became more and more of a challenge.

“For someone who has a strong, strong, addiction, it’s next to impossible to stay straight until you can get into these treatments,” she said.

“He started to drink again, and then he started going out and getting meth. He started using up any money he had. He went and sold his high school ring. And we kept warning him, because we knew that there was a toxic drug problem out there. We said, ‘You know, you’re playing Russian roulette.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I know.’ And he had naloxone with him at his apartment, but if you’re using alone, it doesn’t do any good.”

Despite her warnings, Brenda knew her son was going out and “getting these little hits of meth, because it was cheaper than cocaine.”

The day before Stephen died, she went over to his apartment to bring him some food and help him with his laundry.

“I could tell he was going to head out and get something,” she said. “And the last thing I said to him was ‘I love you.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ And then, the next day, I couldn’t get a hold of him. And I feared the worst. And I went and checked in on him. And yeah, he was done.”

A woman and a young toddler are partially silhouetted as they look out a bright window framed by curtains.
Brenda Gaunt says her son Stephen was active, inquisitive and kind as a young boy. (Submitted by Brenda Gaunt)

A medical examination revealed Stephen’s cause of death was drug toxicity from a combination of meth and two kinds of fentanyl.

“Opioids were never Stephen’s thing; he was always into the stimulants,” Brenda said.

“But you just don’t know what you’re getting nowadays on the street.”

What made his death even harder was how close he was to being admitted for treatment.

“He had made it eight of the 10 weeks,” Richard said. “He wanted to live.”

“Whether or not it would have made a difference if he had made it into treatment, I don’t know,” Brenda said. “But I know if there was a safer supply for him to use, he would have, because he was a smart guy … but intelligence is no match for addiction, unfortunately.”

“Not a day goes by that we don’t miss him, deeply.”

Stephen’s story is one of four personal stories in this series, A Toxic Year, which explores the growing number of opioid deaths in Alberta. More than four Albertans died per day, on average, in 2023, the deadliest year on record for the province. You can find the other stories here.


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