'Prescribed to Death' Memorial to Be Displayed in Washington, D.C.

On the heels of its recent policy proposals to fight the opioid crisis, The White House is bringing a controversial memorial to commemorate those who have died from prescription opioid overdoses.

The memorial, called “Prescribed to Death,” is part of the National Security Council (NSC)’s “Stop Everyday Killers” campaign, which seeks to educate people about the “risks of taking opioids.” The exhibit features a wall covered in 22,000 white “pills,” each with a face inscribed on it. The pills represent the 22,000 people who died from overdoses of prescribed opioids and fentanyl in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Maureen Vogel, senior public relations manager for the NSC, told The Mighty. The memorial launched in Chicago in November then went to Pittsburg and will be stopping in Atlanta before Washington, D.C.

Vogel said the NSC asked people impacted by the crisis if they would share their loved one’s photo and personal story for the exhibit — about 50 families said yes. An artist carved several pills in the likenesses of those whose families consented. The other faces on the wall are not necessarily a specific person, though they represent overdose data in terms of gender, race and age. Some victims’ personal belongings will also be on display and there will be resources available for safe disposal of unused pills as well as resources to help start conversations with doctors about pain relief options.

The memorial will be open to the public at The Ellipse, a park next to the White House, from April 12 to 18.

A video for the exhibit shared by the White House’s Twitter account states “92,000,000 Americans were prescribed opioids in one year. 22,000 of them died from an overdose. To change perceptions of the opioid crisis, we showed the real faces behind the data.” A new pill is etched on-site every 24 minutes, to represent how often a person dies from a prescription opioid overdose.

The exhibit also has an interactive website allows you to see the stories of some people whose faces are featured in the memorial.

The memorial will likely be controversial among people who use opioids for chronic pain, the majority of whom use their medication responsibly and do not die of overdoses. Jade Pritchett, a Mighty contributor who uses opioids for her chronic pain, said she thought the memorial was a great idea. She said she’s 100 percent behind making sure more people who don’t need to be on opioids never take them and are aware of other options they have.

“I hate them as much as the next guy, maybe even more because I live in dependency of them and I despise it,” she told The Mighty. “The caveat is that I think with every conversation like this memorial there needs to be a conversation had about people who put safeguards in check for themselves, who stay hyper-alert to what they’re taking, who have exhausted every option and are still looking for other options but need these pills to stay alive.”

Mikki Ingram, another Mighty contributor who uses opioids, said the memorial looked like “opioid hysteria.” She said she’s “mortified” chronic pain patients like her are still not being considered in this issue — the people who, with opioids, have a greater quality of life, though their pain never goes away completely.

“The bottom line is, yes, millions have been impacted by this issue, but the majority are not the people who have perished. The majority are people who live with constant, chronic pain on a day in and day out basis,” Ingram said. “The majority is us, and, for whatever reason, we are invisible just like the illnesses that we are constantly fighting against. We are just trying to matter.”

Vogel said the NSC understands the memorial is provocative and “may stir up many different emotions,” though they don’t want to offend anyone.

“Our hope is that the memorial is powerful enough to prompt critical dialogue – particularly between patients and prescribers about when opioids are appropriate, or whether an alternative, less addictive medicine may be a more effective option,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s drug overdose data, 42,200 deaths were linked to opioids in 2016. Non-methadone synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for 19,413, heroin accounted for 15,469 and prescription opioids accounted for 14,487.

In 2015, prescription opioids accounted for 12,727 deaths while non-methadone synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for 9,580. Heroin accounted for 12,989.

Other studies have shown only approximately 13 percent of people using opioids “misuse” them, while between 1 and 12 percent become addicted.

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