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State Museum Highlights Opioid Crisis While Overdoses Soar

People begin their visit to the opioid crisis exhibit.i

The exhibit informs visitors about the drug and its effects on users; the exhibit also is intended to reduce the stigma of opioid addiction. (Lilly St. Angelo)

Opioid usage has skyrocketed in Indiana during the pandemic and the Indiana State Museum wants to get the word out.

More than 800 Hoosiers died in the first six months of 2020 from overdoses, according to Indiana Department of Health preliminary data. That’s a 41% increase compared to the first six months of 2019. Emergency room visits due to overdoses went up 53%.

But even before the pandemic, the opioid crisis was taking hundreds of lives every year in Indiana. Museum CEO Cathy Ferree, took notice and asked the community how the museum could help. 

Based on feedback, the museum opened an exhibit in February called "FIX: Heartbreak and Hope Inside Our Opioid Crisis."

Museum exhibit developer Cathleen Donnelly said the exhibit informs visitors about the drug and its effects on users. The exhibit also is intended to reduce the stigma of opioid addiction.

“There is so much stigma around the disease and we’re trying to get people to understand this is a disease, treatments are available, and recovery is possible," Donnelly said. "So, we’re trying to help people have that empathy to reach out and help other people particularly if they have a loved one or a neighbor or a friend who is suffering from opioid use disorder.”

Walking into the exhibit, visitors learn about the science behind opioids and the history of their use. Although it can’t be confirmed, Mary Todd Lincoln is thought to have suffered from opioid use disorder.

“It’s surprising to many people to realize that it goes way back to the civil war when people, particularly veterans who were returning from the war, had experience with opioids and then it was very difficult for them to recover from that," Donnelly said. "And then that kind of ballooned into a crisis similar to the one we have today but it was well over a hundred years ago.”

Another corner of the exhibit helps kids understand pain. People are sometimes prescribed opioids for pain relief but according to the Mayo Clinic, they are safest when used for three days or less to avoid addiction. 

Throughout the exhibit, story booths allow visitors to listen to the stories of 16 people who are in recovery from an opioid addiction or have a loved one who was affected.

“I did not have personal experience with this but certainly meeting the people who came in the interviews, we did a lot of interviews, their stories were really amazing, and these are people who are for the most part in recovery and they have overcome enormous odds to get where they are today,” Donnelly said.

The last part of the exhibit highlights the recovery process. Interactive areas for yoga, music therapy, breathing exercises and creating art show visitors different methods for handling stress, a key lesson in the recovery process.

The four dimensions of recovery are making healthy choices, having purpose, having stable housing and being in community with others. Donnelly said the extreme increase in overdoses in Indiana during the pandemic may be linked to people not having access to some of these key foundations.

For Donnelly, talking to people in recovery has given her a new perspective on the opioid crisis and hope for those struggling with addiction.

“It’s a problem that is not insurmountable, it is treatable, and hope is there,” she said.

One way the exhibit urges the public to help is through training in administering naloxone. The museum lists upcoming trainings happening across the state on the exhibit’s website at Indianamuseum.org.

The exhibit will run through August 1, 2021.

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