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NH Health

How can art help families dealing with substance use disorder?

Art of Hope, a program offered by the Currier Museum of Art, gives family members an outlet to express themselves and a supportive community

Participants in the Art of Hope program meet at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H., for an art class aimed at supporting families impacted by substance use disorder.Corie Lyford

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Brian Harlow knows something about recovery. He started drinking at 14 and started trying to stop at 17.

At 51, Harlow said he’s now been in recovery since he was 20. That hasn’t made it easier to see a family member struggling with substance use disorder since 2016.

But Harlow has found support in a place he least expected: an art class designed to help people who have someone in their family who is dealing with substance use disorder.

At first, Harlow was skeptical. “What do pretentious art people know about me?” he said when he heard about the class.


But the class has provided respite and an invaluable community during an extremely difficult time, he said.

“Pretty soon I couldn’t deny that whatever was going on there that I was sleeping better, and I was able to be in my own skin and be a little more comfortable,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that.”

The Currier Museum of Art started the program, called Art of Hope, in January 2018. At that time, the opioid epidemic was rampant in Manchester. New Hampshire’s annual death rate from drug overdoses was 35.8 per 100,000 people, placing it among the states with the highest rates in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Museum staff decided the class was one thing they could do to make a difference.

“We designed a wellness approach using art experiences, both experiences in the galleries and with our educators, that we tied to the theme of the session,” said Bruce McColl, the director of engagement at the Currier Museum.

The class is free and open to the public. Some participants have children who are struggling; for others, it’s a sibling or another close relative. The group meets at the museum once a week during most of the year and once a month over the summer. The group gathers in the gallery, discussing a work of art based on the theme of the session. There’s also a creative component, where participants make artwork of their own. The session closes out with another discussion led by parent mentors who have had a child with substance abuse disorder. And there’s always food.


“That’s one night a week they don’t have to worry about dinner,” McColl said. “They can focus on themselves.”

“The artwork is just very relaxing,” said Patrick McKeown. “There’s not a lot of crying. It’s a lot of laughter. And that’s the purpose of this. It’s respite.”Corie Lyford

Patrick McKeown is one of the parent mentors who helps lead the sessions. The Currier approached McKeown, who already was facilitating another Manchester support group called F.A.S.T.E.R. — short for Families Advocating Substance, Treatment, Education and Recovery — about getting involved with Art of Hope when organizers began planning in 2017.

During discussions, McKeown said he asks open-ended questions, like “What was it like when your child relapsed?” and “How did you handle it?” Participants share their experiences and helpful resources.

Watching a family member struggle with substance use disorder is stressful. Creating art can be an antidote.

“The artwork is just very relaxing,” McKeown said. “There’s not a lot of crying. It’s a lot of laughter. And that’s the purpose of this. It’s respite.”

Participants are often in dire need of that break, according to McKeown.

“You have no idea how consuming it is to have a child so sick that you think they can die this week,” he said.


But McKeown and his wife Susan do. Their son Daniel died a year and a half ago when he was 40, after struggling with substance use disorder since the age of 16, according to his parents. They described him as funny and affectionate. Patrick and Susan started F.A.S.T.E.R. 20 years ago, while Daniel was still alive. Both said they felt they did everything in their power to help him.

Part of their message to others supporting a family member is that much is beyond their control.

“The parents have this constant worry: Is my child going to die?” Patrick McKeown said. “And when we come in there what we want them to do is just recognize that some of this is out of their control. They didn’t cause it. They can’t cure it. But they can take care of themselves and learn how to better handle yourself.”

The McKeowns live in a beautiful neighborhood in Manchester, full of big, stately houses and green, manicured lawns. Both are now retired: Susan was a pediatric nurse practitioner and Patrick was a special education teacher at the local high school. It’s not the typical household many might imagine when they think about substance use disorder. But it affects people from all kinds of families.

The McKeowns said there were no deaths during the first 10 years of facilitating F.A.S.T.E.R. Last year alone, Susan McKeown said, there were six deaths among family members of people in the group.


New Hampshire’s drug overdose death rate is 32.3 per 100,000, according to the latest finalized CDC data from 2021. That means the state ranks 23rd in the nation for overdose deaths. While the overdose death rate had been declining since 2018, it began rising again after the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent report. And in 2022, drug overdose deaths rose 11 percent, nearing the high point of the past decade after 486 people died of overdoses. Fentanyl played a role in most of those deaths.

Susan McKeown said one of the most important elements of the class is that it encourages participants to take care of themselves. “Self-care is the basis of wellness,” she said. “When you have a loved one with substance use a tremendous amount of your energy — physical, emotional, financial — goes into that loved one. And oftentimes everything else in your life is put on the back-burner.”

Sharon Oikelmus has experienced that since she realized her daughter was struggling with alcohol use in 2016. As she supports her daughter, Art of Hope has become an important part of her self-care, she said. It’s a place where she said she can share stories and find resources and respite from the strain of her daughter’s disease.

At the Art of Hope program, “You get to be 10 years old again, doing art projects. So you get to play,” she said.

Oikelmus said the uncertainty that comes along with substance use disorder is challenging. Her daughter goes through ups and downs that are out of her control.


“There’s many a time that I think about planning for a funeral because I just don’t know,” she said.

She said her daughter is in rehab right now and doing well — and while she has prepared herself for the worst, she still hopes for the best.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, you can call 211 to connect with resources and services. You can also call the state’s rapid response number at 833-710-6477. You can also find recovery services online at

Art of Hope is free and open to the public. It takes place on Monday nights from 6 to 8 p.m.

Amanda Gokee can be reached at Follow her @amanda_gokee.