Overdose Exhibit Praised by Trump, Criticized by Others

By Paul Fuhr 04/02/18

Some say a new overdose exhibit on its way to the White House is dehumanizing lives lost to the opioid epidemic.

woman observing the overdose memorial
Photo via National Safety Council

President Trump announced last week that the White House will play host to a temporary memorial honoring opioid abuse victims. The exhibit, conceived by the National Safety Council (NSC), will feature a wall that depicts 22,000 individual faces of people who died from prescription opioid overdoses.

According to the National Safety Council, 22,000 people die each year from opioid pain medication overdoses. 

Each face will be engraved on a white fingerprint-sized “pill,” Tonic reported. Titled “Prescribed to Death,” the exhibit will be erected outside the White House from April 12-18. “I encourage all to visit [the exhibit] and remember those who we have lost to this deadly epidemic,” President Trump tweeted. “We will keep fighting until we defeat the opioid crisis!”

And while Trump applauds the “Prescribed to Death” installation, many others find the memorial distasteful, if not entirely disgraceful.

The exhibit, which will be located in the Ellipse in President’s Park, is being criticized by some as a tone-deaf response to the opioid epidemic, not to mention a poor way of memorializing loved ones who have been lost to the crisis.

“Dehumanizing the victims of overdose by reducing them to faces on a pill is absurd,” Carol Katz Beyer, co-founder of Families for Sensible Drug Policy told Tonic. “Our children are first and foremost family members who are human beings that reflect many interests and a diverse range of talents. We would never shun or dishonor the death of anyone with another health condition by placing that singularly stigma-ridden attachment to their face.” (Beyer has lost several loved ones to the crisis, Tonic noted.) 

Another criticism leveled at “Prescribed to Death” is that it doesn’t tell the whole story. In 2016,  the CDC reports, there were more than 42,000 opioid-related overdose deaths, with 33% of them related to heroin.

Tonic points out that while many people became addicted to opioids during pain treatment, “the vast majority” of people misusing painkillers are taking medications that weren’t prescribed to them in the first place.

For many people, the memorial is as shrewd as it is reductive.

“Those ‘pills’ look like tiny death masks to me,” said Bill Williams, who lost his son at age 24 to an overdose. “To me the issue is Trump co-opting this wall. He's had nothing to do with it. It's cynical on his part to do anything more than to suggest it is worth a visit. It's Trump using every death in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to campaign with.”

Others argue that the memorial focuses only on people who died from prescription drug overdoses. Even worse, Louise Vincent (who lost her daughter at 19 from an overdose) thinks the memorial perpetuates the stigma of addiction.

“All we are is melted down into a pill,” she told Tonic. “What a powerful image: your mother, your sister, your daughter—all they turned into was a pill. That’s the dominant narrative—you become that… that’s all you care about.”

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.