By Alyssa Tremblay
In her documentary film, student researcher Kayla Hagerty opens with a startling fact: in the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada experienced an 89% increase in deaths caused by apparent opioid overdoses.
This statistic is more than just a number to Hagerty, as her film – My Dad, Ian: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affected the Pre-existing Opioid Epidemic in Canada – centres around the sudden death of her stepfather, Ian Harrington, who died of an accidental drug overdose just three months into lockdown.
The loss led to Hagerty – then a B.A. student in Human Rights and Social Justice and Sociology at Carleton University – completely pivoting her studies toward researching Canada’s opioid crisis.
That research resulted in the creation of a three-hour home-movie-style documentary featuring interviews with people who use drugs, people who no longer use, and those working in the harm reduction community in Hagerty’s hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.
As both the documentary’s director and an interview subject, Hagerty worked hard to strike a balance between the two roles.
“I wanted to allow room for other perspectives and for those actually directly living through the drug crisis to share their experiences,” she explains. “I intended to show that I could relate without trying to make the project only about myself, to make sure to create a safe space for others to share their struggles without overbearing anyone with mine.”
Hagerty found that her experience of having a loved one who struggled with drug use helped her to have honest and meaningful conversations with people who use substances.
“They knew I was someone who understood, and so they had no feelings of shame or stigma.”Kayla Hagerty
“They knew I was someone who understood, and so they had no feelings of shame or stigma.”
“One moment that stuck with me,” she recalls, “was when I was speaking to a man named Brenden about how his relationship with his family and children has deteriorated due to his conflicting use of substances.”
He explained to Hagerty that he felt bad for his children because they had to experience having a father that uses drugs.
“I told him, as someone who had a parental figure who used drugs, that I would rather have a drug addict dad than no dad at all. While in retrospect my wording could have been better, I think I got my point across that children are just lucky to be loved by someone, regardless of the choices their parents make, and that he had nothing to be sorry for.”
This care-based approach is what Hagerty and her fellow researchers advocate for when searching for solutions to Canada’s opioid crisis.
In April, Hagerty delivered a presentation to the Hamilton Board of Health providing research-based recommendations on how the city could better address the opioid crisis, such as increasing harm reduction services and introducing new policies to decriminalize drug use.
“While the fight for harm reduction may seem like a radical or modern idea, there are several forms of harm reduction that are already in existence across the public health field,” she explains.
For instance, Hagerty gives the example of how people with diabetes are allowed access to insulin to regulate their blood sugar levels.
“When people who have diabetes eat too much sugar, their doctors do not refuse to give them access to their insulin. When it comes to people who use substances, however, who are accessing treatment and other rehabilitative measures, they are often punished for relapsing and denied further access to assistance.”
The result of these penal measures is that individuals who use drugs are shamed, stigmatized and neglected, rather than treated. This represents a tremendous gap in our public health care system that Hagerty is seeking to address through her research.
“Kayla is a great example of a graduating BA student not only excelling in the classroom but also using her Sociology studies in exciting and innovative hands-on ways to tackle difficult social problems in the wider community,” says Dr. Aaron Doyle, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.
Doyle first met Hagerty through the Criminalization and Punishment Education Project (CPEP), a research and advocacy organization started by students and professors at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa.
CPEP worked with a small team of students – including Hagerty – in the Winter 2021 iteration of the course SOCI 4170: Community Engaged Sociology.
The students decided to produce a podcast series called Collect Calls, featuring ten long-form interviews with former prisoners and their loved ones.
According to Doyle, Hagerty very much led the way in conceiving and coordinating the project, as well as conducting and editing many of the interviews.
“Kayla is extraordinarily creative and productive,” he says. “She is one of the most motivated and driven students I have ever seen and very importantly is driven to do work that makes a difference in the wider community.”
For her part, Hagerty says the motivation to complete the project came from a personal place.
“It meant a lot to me, and I felt primarily responsible for making it come to life, as this podcast was inspired by a recording of an interview I had between my stepfather and his sister, Stephanie Harrington,” she says. “I used the snippet of that interview as the first episode of the podcast.”
Doyle was so impressed with Hagerty’s work that he decided to hire her as a research assistant, as well as complete a directed studies course with her.
The research assistantship was funded through the FASS COVID-19 Research Assistantship Awards. Distributed by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the awards were established to assist faculty members whose research was hindered by COVID-19 and provide much-needed employment to students during the pandemic.
Hagerty screened her documentary film last November as part of a lecture series organized by FASS in which faculty and students discussed the research they undertook thanks to support from a FASS COVID-19 RA Award.
“Although she was the only undergraduate presenting on a panel which otherwise featured MA and PhD students, she gave one of the strongest presentations,” said Doyle.
Hagerty has since graduated from Carleton, earning her Bachelor of Arts Honours in Human Rights and Social Justice and Sociology with a Minor in Law, in addition to receiving the Canadian Sociological Association award for the achievement of being one of two top-graduating Sociology BA students in her year.
She currently spends her time working in shelters in Hamilton but is returning to Carleton in the fall to pursue a Master of Arts in Sociology. Through graduate studies, Hagerty will continue advancing her research on how the pandemic has impacted Canada’s opioid crisis, pushing against the persistent stigma faced by people who use drugs – a stigma that exists even within academia itself.
“Academic research can sometimes be a bit closed off,” she says. “During the process of gaining ethics for my project, I had to convince the committee that I would be safe enough to conduct this kind of research, as there is an underlying stigma against people who use drugs that deems them dangerous or difficult to work.”
Hagerty feels that changes need to be made around how researchers perceive certain subjects.
“Studies in addictions and mental health are just as important to public health as any other subject,” she says. “Conversations regarding people’s right to be included in research need to be had. There should be nothing done about us, without us. No drug policies should be implemented without direct consultation with individuals that use drugs.”
In terms of the form her graduate research will take, Hagerty is once again hoping to produce either a podcast or a documentary to share her findings.
Her advice to fellow students interested in trying their hand at creative arts-based research practices? Give it a shot.
“Just try, even if you don’t think it will come out as professional or as perfect as you want it to,” she encourages.
“I didn’t have any media experience prior to creating the podcast and documentary, and I’d hardly call myself artistic or very creative. I had never conducted or recorded any interviews before either or edited anything similar to a podcast and documentary. But I gave it a try because I knew this would be the best method to communicate what I had learned in the process of my research.”Kayla Hagerty
“I didn’t have any media experience prior to creating the podcast and documentary, and I’d hardly call myself artistic or very creative. I had never conducted or recorded any interviews before either or edited anything similar to a podcast and documentary. But I gave it a try because I knew this would be the best method to communicate what I had learned in the process of my research.”
Hagerty contends that using audio-visual methods was vital in order to put faces and voices to the often cold, detached numerical statistics shared in the media about the opioid crisis.
“24,000 Canadians died of an opioid overdose in Canada and yet nothing from what I had seen was being done to spread awareness of this issue, to humanize the people we are losing. I wanted to show everyone the rawness and reality of what we are dealing with and the faces of those we have been letting down,” says Haggerty.
“If you think that something arts-based is the best way to convey your research, then just give it a try.”
Click here to learn more about another project funded through a FASS COVID-19 Research Assistantship Award.
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