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Eye of the Needle exhibit makes CMU face the opioid crisis close to home

Credit: Mercedes Hesselroth/ Credit: Mercedes Hesselroth/ Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor

Over 115 people in the United States die everyday from overdoses on opioids like prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. This stark statistic reveals the extent of the damage the opioid crisis has done to the people of this country. And the numbers don’t stop there. In 2016, 4600 Pennsylvanians died of a drug overdose. In 2017, over 700 people died of an overdose in Allegheny County alone. The Department of Health website states that “the prescription opioid and heroin overdose epidemic is the worst public health crisis in Pennsylvania.”

From Oct. 1 to 5, our campus, in collaboration with the Light of Life Rescue Mission, hosted the Eye of the Needle, a multi-media immersive art installation based on the documentary of the same name, to raise awareness of the Opioid Crisis and its impact on Pittsburgh.

On Thursday, The Tartan sat down with Elizabeth Vaughan, Associate Dean of Student Affairs and the Director of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Civic Engagement (SLICE) at Carnegie Mellon University, who provided the vision and the support to this event. Speaking on how the art installation had come to the campus, Vaughan said, “Last year, probably early in Spring semester, someone from Light of Life had contacted CFA about bringing Eye of the Needle installation to the campus — thinking about it from like an art perspective.”

According to Vaughn, the installation opened to positive responses from visitors, and sparked a discussion of the crisis in the campus community. Televisions inside the tent by The Fence housing the installation screened the 11 minute documentary to the visitors. Vaughan says that several people who visited the installation shared their own stories about how their lives, and the lives of their friends, families, and coworkers have been affected due to this crisis. “One of the folks who was staffing the installation yesterday shared a story with me that someone who’d gone through the installation had shared, that they had a loved one who was trying to get clean but their health insurance had provided only 10 days of in-patient treatment, [which is] just not sufficient for how significant the grip of the addiction is,” she said, highlighting the challenges that people who seek recovery face.

Eye of the Needle is a thought-provoking documentary that shows the human side of this crisis. It goes beyond statistics and shows people - their lives, their stories, and the stories of their loved ones. It gives a dignity and respect for the humanity of addicts that most discussions of the opioid epidemic do not. The art installation also had similar themes. Speaking of this, Vaughan said, “One of the primary goals was to start the conversation of the crisis. I would say that what I’ve heard as a really significant theme in our conversations is the idea of not just seeing the problem but seeing the person, recognizing them as a fellow human being.”

Vaughan found this reaction embodied in a reflection card left by one visitor, stating simply,”I see you.” Vaughn described this as “Like, recognizing, you’re the person that I pass by [and] see panhandling, you’re the person that I drive by and see coming out of one of the tents in the encampment, you are a person and we have this shared humanity, and therefore I should care because you’re also a human being, you’re worthy of something better than your current conditions are.”

The installation has become a conversation-starter for a topic that is deeply personal and difficult for many people in the campus community. “In an hour and a half period that I was staffing the installation on Tuesday, I had multiple staff members who either have a sibling or their child or their friends’ children who’re are struggling with addiction,” she said, when asked about the extent to which the campus community itself has been affected by this crisis. “I’ve had a former faculty member who shared an experience about a former student of hers who became addicted while he was a student here and he dropped out, and then, unfortunately, overdosed and passed away… I don’t have any numerical values to provide… but what I’ve become shockingly aware of is truly how many people on our campus have been affected in some way and are living with the challenges of that day to day.”

What is it that they want to achieve through this installation? Vaughan explains, “I think one piece of what they’re trying to do is show the actual conditions… the reality of the situation and they’re not trying to sugar coat it. That’s why the items are directly taken from the street, everything from the leaves to the trash to the furniture - everything that you saw there was directly from the street other than the tents. I think they’re trying to show the range of people’s circumstances.” Vaughan also shared a powerful experience that she had due to the installation, “I actually was walking out of the installation opposite of the direction that we typically walk through just yesterday. And I looked over, and realized that there was a little baby shoe there... and I hadn’t seen that when I had walked through the other direction… I’m a mother of 3 kids and I can’t imagine my children having to live in that environment… I just can’t imagine that.”

As a community, we can fight back. The Light of the Life Rescue mission is actively working to reduce addiction and homelessness in Pittsburgh, and we have lots of opportunities to volunteer with them. Another organization that Carnegie Mellon has a long-standing relationship with is Sojourner House. There are lots of other organizations that are working with the homeless population like Bethlehem Haven and Living Ministry if one wishes to take direct action. “But,” Vaughan, adds, “there’s also an election coming up in November. If this is an issue you care about, educate yourself in the local, state, and national level… candidates that are running - what are their positions on getting increased accessible care, prevention, and what are their positions and what are their priorities and goals related to the crisis and whatever lies the closest to your value set and the education set that you’ve provided yourself, you know, doing research and then support those candidates. So, I do think we have to be working at all of those levels for us to really make progress.”

But most importantly, Vaughan says, “If you suspect something is going on, you have to say something. Having the courage to address the suspicion, the concern, and to say, ‘I care about you. I’m worried. What’s going on? Can I help you get connected to help?’ and not to be an active bystander. You don’t know if saying something will help that person get into care at that moment but it is demonstrating that their life is valuable and that they are worthy of love, of support, and respect, and maybe the thing that helps get them connected to care. So we have to have the courage to have that hard conversation.”

In 2015, over 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdose. That same year, an estimated 2 million people suffered from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.

You can visit the SLICE website to find information and resources about the Opioid Crisis, what you can do to help, and where you can seek help: https://www.cmu.edu/student-affairs/slice/civic-engagement/eye-of-the-needle.html.