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Vital Stories

Collective Healing Through Art: Spotlight on Overdose Awareness and Recovery  

By Natalie Holland, Program Officer, Overdose Prevention Program, Michigan  

In July, Vital Strategies and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) teamed up to launch a community-driven, two-part public arts campaign aimed at confronting the stigma associated with drug use and changing what we see when we think about people who use drugs. Stigma surrounding drug use is deeply embedded in the substance use treatment system and often cited as the single biggest obstacle to seeking care for individuals with a substance use disorder. Even as drug overdose deaths continue to increase nationwide each year, public messaging on the drug overdose crisis fails to capture the voices of those with lived experience and the fellowship of recovering individuals and people who use drugs. Our campaign aims to change just that.

A person views overdose awareness art at the opening reception of the Collective Healing Through Art exhibit | Photo Credit: Valaurian Waller
A person views art at the opening reception of the Collective Healing Through Art exhibit | Photo Credit: Valaurian Waller

Since 2001, communities have gathered annually on August 31 to honor and mourn the lives lost to drug overdose. To mark International Overdose Awareness Day this year, Vital Strategies and MDHHS, in partnership with the Downriver Council for the Arts, a local Michigan arts organization, presented the Collective Healing Through Art: 2021 Overdose Awareness Day Exhibition featuring pieces from 34 community artists who have experienced the impact of the drug overdose crisis.

Collective Healing Through Art showcased mixed media works, sculpture, collages, acrylic, and oil paintings, as well as interactive performance pieces, including an immersive sound bath installation, a group installation project, and a live graffiti piece. 

The night featured powerfully raw stories from the front lines of the drug overdose crisis. Far too many Americans have been lost to drug overdose over the past two decades. In recent years, overall life expectancy in the United States has decreased for the first time ever, attributed in part, to the rise in fatal drug overdoses, a crisis exacerbated last year by the global COVID-19 pandemic. But the impact of drug overdose cuts deeper than any statistic. The exhibition demonstrates that addiction is as much a battle for individuals as it is for their families and communities. The exhibited art featured stories of loss, hopelessness, and aloneness, but when presented together there was a tangible current of hope, of dignity, and of recovery.

Live art creating by artist BAKA FZK at the opening reception of Collective Healing Through Art | Photo Credit: Valaurian Waller

The exhibition promoted art by people in all stages of recovery. Artists who participated in the exhibition received up to a $2,000 commission for their work and were also able to sell their work at the exhibition.

Also in attendance was the Detroit Recovery Project’s outreach van that provides access to sterile syringes, wound care, linkage to treatment, and HIV/HCV testing directly from a mobile van in the city of Detroit. The Detroit Recovery Project also provided participants with free naloxone, the lifesaving overdose reversal drug.

Following on the heels of Overdose Awareness Day, National Recovery Month is observed nationally during the month of September to recognize the healthcare professionals who treat individuals with substance use disorders and support individuals in all stages of recovery. In partnership with MDHHS and City Walls Detroit, Vital Strategies is commissioning three murals in Detroit for Recovery Month to symbolize the impact of the drug overdose crisis and promote the message that substance use disorder is a chronic health condition, not a moral failing. The murals aim to bring messages of hope and resiliency to Detroit communities and promote inclusion of people in all stages of recovery. The three mural winners are: 

We need to change what people see when they think about drug use. People do recover from substance use disorder. We need to make it easy for everyone to get help, support, and care, when they’re ready. 

To learn more about Collective Healing Through Art: Overdose Awareness Day Exhibit and view the exhibition online visit: 2021 Collective Healing — Downriver Council for the Arts (

The Detroit Recovery Project street outreach van was on site providing resources and information | Photo Credit: Valaurian Waller