VIU researcher using community-engaged approach to BC’s toxic drug crisis

Sharon Karsten standing and smiling with her arms crossed in front of a blurred background of greenery

Dr. Sharon Karsten received a Michael Smith Health Research BC Scholar award for her community-engaged approach to BC's toxic drug crisis.

September 19, 2023 - 12:00pm

Dr. Sharon Karsten received a Michael Smith Health Research BC Scholar award that will support her in her work.

In the midst of BC’s ongoing, toxic drug crisis, a researcher at Vancouver Island University (VIU) is using an arts-based, community-engaged approach to help people “come together in new ways to imagine and create change.”

Dr. Sharon Karsten is a Professor in the Recreation and Tourism Management department. She is also the director of Walk With Me, a project that began in 2019 when she was the director of the Comox Valley Art Gallery.

“I witnessed first-hand the impact the drug poisoning crisis was having on our community,” said Karsten. “We wanted to know what a gallery could do to make change.”

We have been told many times by those facing this crisis first-hand that the opposite of addiction is connection, said Karsten. A key contributing factor to the crisis – one that is often overlooked – is the rise in “hypercapitalism” and “hyperindividualism.” Essentially, people no longer feel a sense of connection to their communities or a sense of closeness to those within them, she explained. This can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation and addiction emerges as a way to cope.

Through conversations with AVI Health and Community Services, as well as Island Health and people facing the crisis first-hand, the Walk With Me project was born.

“The question of how to build and strengthen community ties is central to our work,” said Karsten. “We’ve seen first-hand the power of art, culture and creative practice in creating new modes of connection between formerly disparate individuals, organizations and factions.”

The project includes “Story Walks,” where participants don individual headsets and go for a walk while listening to curated stories about people who are directly involved in the crisis, putting a human face on the issue. Afterwards, the group meets to talk about the stories they’ve heard and “reflects on the many dimensions underlying this public health crisis.”

Receiving a Michael Smith Health Research BC Scholar award enables Karsten to continue this work at VIU. This will help with further growth of the Walk With Me project.

“We are excited to have her on board as her work is going to be instrumental in addressing some of the most pressing medical and social issues of our time,” said Dr. Sungchul Choi, Dean of VIU’s Faculty of Management. “Her interdisciplinary and community-engaged research approach is exactly what we need to tackle the toxic drug crisis and other complex problems. We are thrilled to collaborate with her and give our faculty and students the chance to work alongside her."

Over the next five years, Karsten will focus on developing a learning system in which people with lived experience of the crisis play a strong role in defining the health authority’s response to the crisis.

“Working in solidarity with others in the campus community, as well as with our existing network of partners, peers and community stakeholders, I look forward to exploring new pathways forward,” she said. “We believe the development of peer leadership has powerful ramifications in the quest to make health systems more relevant to those who have been traditionally underserved. This work is as a site of relationship building between different factions of community, and enables people to come together in new ways to imagine and create change.”

Karsten’s team is hosting Story Walks on the VIU Nanaimo campus this fall, including one on November 23, from 1 to 3 pm. Those interested in participating can email Karsten directly for more information.



Eric Zimmer, Communications Officer, Vancouver Island University

P: 250.618.7296 | E: | T: @VIUNews

The VIU community acknowledges and thanks the Snuneymuxw, Quw’utsun, Tla’amin, Snaw-naw-as and Qualicum First Nation on whose traditional lands we teach, learn, research, live and share knowledge.

Tags: Research

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