Student art show advances dialogue on the opioid crisis’s impacts on youth

A student art show hosted yesterday night in the Lev Bukhman Theatre Lounge highlighted the impact of the opioid crisis from a youth perspective, advancing the dialogue on how to change societal misconceptions about substances and those who use them.

Hosted by the UBC Chapter of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) — a grassroots national youth organization that advocates for more evidence-based drug policies — and funded by the Canadian Institute of Substance Use Research, the event used art to kickstart a community dialogue session on how to better address an opioid crisis that killed 1,156 British Columbians in 2017 alone.

Stephanie Lake, a PhD student at the School of Population and Public Health and the chapter’s chair, said that while substance use is a part of student culture, the impact of the opioid crisis on student populations is rarely discussed.

“You hear about the opioid crisis all the time, but you don’t hear about how students are being affected by it,” she said. “We know it’s bound to affect students, but we don’t talk about it.”

Featured pieces tackle social misconceptions around substance use through a variety of mediums and messages, from recovery to addiction to the trauma of loss.

Vancouver Community College student Mildred German said her art is inspired by the fight for social justice in her community in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. With her acrylic painting Stigma Kills, German hopes to show that addiction and mental illness can affect anyone, anywhere.

“Stigma, that really does affect everyone,” said German. “People have to suffer on their own when we have resources that we could provide to save their lives.

“People are being killed by something that has a cure.”

Danielle Martine, a student at the Emily Carr University of Art, created a text-based piece incorporating quotes from dozens of prescription cards and her own interventions, highlighting the often contradictory messages in the healthcare system that allow people to slip through the cracks.

“If you spend time with the place, you start to notice that a lot of quotes are counterintuitive,” she explained. “There’s juxtaposition like, ‘take with food’, but then, ‘do not take with food.’”

Another quotes reads, “Your doctor will write prescriptions regardless of your safety.”

“With the medical system, there’s a lack of autonomy and consideration of the human side,” said Martine.

Danielle Martine’s piece highlights the often contradictory messages in the healthcare system that allow people to slip through the cracks.
Danielle Martine’s piece highlights the often contradictory messages in the healthcare system that allow people to slip through the cracks. Zak Vescera

Beyond drug policy, pieces also address the personal side of substance use. A series of photos by CSSDP member Hillary Agro showcases the social connections created by consensual, safe recreational drug use.

“We often don’t discuss positive reasons for drug use,” said Lake. “Just showing people who use drugs as happy, fulfilled people … helps destigmatize substance use.”

Other pieces deal with the trauma of loss. UBC alumnus and artist Emma Windsor-Liscombe dedicated a piece to her cousin, who passed away three weeks ago after taking drugs contaminated with fentanyl. Comprised of six graphite sketches, the piece highlights the hardship Windsor-Liscombe’s cousin suffered as a victim of addiction and extreme bullying, as well as a survivor of sexual assault.

“She was living at home again after she had the first overdose, so a lot of us started to realize what had been going on with her,” said Windsor-Liscombe, who has tentative plans to tell her cousin’s story in a book. “But really, she had been addicted since she was a teenager.”

“She wanted to get better,” said Winsdor-Liscombe. “She wanted to get better so that she could talk to people about her experience.”

As discussion groups began, Lake stressed the point of the event wasn’t to force or promote a single view of drug policy on attendees or solve the crisis overnight, but to create a space for honest, vulnerable dialogue.

“We’re not trying to come up with any simple solutions. We know that there are no simple solutions,” said Lake. “In order for us to move forward with any sensible, small-scale policy changes … we really do need to understand how students and young people are experiencing the crisis.

“The major goal of this event is just to get people talking.”