The overdose crisis on canvas

By Jeremy Deutsch

To mark International Overdose Awareness Day 2021, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has partnered with local artists with lived and living experience to launch Not Just an Art Show: The Overdose Crisis on Canvas. From August 31 through to September 3, artwork was on display at the Interurban Gallery in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), featuring more than a dozen pieces inspired by the artists’ thoughts around International Overdose Awareness Day and their experiences with the current overdose crisis.

VCH collaborated with Portland Hotel Society to display the artwork in the heart of the DTES, with individual pieces contributed by more than a dozen artists with lived and living experience of substance use across the Vancouver Coastal Health Region. Lived experience relates to people who have used one or more substances and who are currently in recovery. Living experience relates to people who are currently using one or more substances.

This gallery offered people the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of people who use substances to understand the complexities of the crisis, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. During 2020 alone, 1,728 people lost their life to overdose in B.C., which represents a 76 per cent increase of the previous year.

“People continue to die of overdoses in our communities at an unacceptably high rate. This art exhibition is an opportunity for artists from the community to express how the crisis has impacted them directly and share what Overdose Awareness Day means to them,” says Miranda Compton, VCH’s Executive Director for Substance Use and Priority Populations. “Overdose Awareness day is also an opportunity to acknowledge the hard work of peers and community members in responding to the crisis.”

Peer workers form the backbone of frontline response to the overdose crisis. As individuals with lived and living experience of substance use, peer workers have in-depth, first-hand knowledge of harm reduction, treatment and recovery services. They form an important connection between people who use substances and the healthcare community.

“Peer workers play a core role and serve as critical supports across all of the overdose prevention sites,” says Wendy Stevens, Peer Operations Coordinator with VCH’s Overdose Emergency Response Team. “While we remember those lost to this crisis, we also need to hold space for people who are in the trenches saving lives everyday.”

“Frontline workers deserve respect for what they do,” says Randy Pandora, an artist living in the Downtown Eastside. “They often don’t get acknowledgement for saving lives by reversing overdoses long before any help arrives. That is what Overdose Awareness Day is about: saving lives.”

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) is responsible for the delivery of $4.1 billion in community, hospital and long-term care to more than one million people in communities including Richmond, Vancouver, the North Shore, Sunshine Coast, Sea to Sky corridor, Powell River, Bella Bella and Bella Coola. VCH also provides specialized care and services for people throughout B.C., and is the province’s hub of health-care education and research.

Jeremy Deutsch is a Public Affairs Specialist at Vancouver Coastal Health.