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The Story Behind Igniting Compassion, a Film About Treatment, Recovery and Hope

Thu, Sep 21, 2023  -  Comments (0)  -   Posted by The Center for Health Affairs

Authored by Carrie Lang


Earlier this summer, The Center released the documentary, Igniting Compassion after a premiere to a packed audience of healthcare professionals, local nonprofit and community outreach groups, and individuals in recovery. Shining a light on the medical stigma surrounding addiction, the film takes a personal look into the lives of Northeast Ohio residents impacted by the opioid crisis and polysubstance use and the clinicians who care for them.


Produced by Amy Terry, The Center’s director of member programming, filmmaker Alec Hillyer, and me, Igniting Compassion was filmed entirely in Cleveland, OH. This project required months of preparation and dedicated persistence to gently navigate the topic of addiction and present it in a way that is respectful to the individuals and their stories. With the many challenges of creating a 35-minute film, how did we accomplish this feat?



The documentary was inspired by interviews conducted as part of The Center’s Clinical Opioid Education Needs Assessment, which sought to uncover gaps in clinician education on opioid and substance use disorders and treatments. The film features stories of people with lived experience of not only loss and pain but also hope, recovery and treatment success. 


We had funding to verify the findings of the education needs assessment through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) grant which supports the implementation of prevention activities and the collecting of accurate, comprehensive and timely data on overdoses. Additionally, the Cuyahoga County Board of Health supported our pursuit of this project, particularly based on the needs assessment findings.


The goals of the documentary:

  • Reduce stigma, highlight treatment success stories, humanize and personalize the opioid epidemic, reduce compassion fatigue and showcase information about the disease model of addiction.
  • Increase provider willingness to provide substance use disorder (SUD) treatment and individual willingness to seek treatment.


As one of the film's producers, my efforts were focused on getting the project off the ground by finding subjects of various backgrounds and perspectives willing to share their stories. We wanted to hear from not only individuals with a history involving addiction and recovery, but also their family members and even clinicians experienced in the treatment of SUD.


With the sensitive topics discussed in the film, finding individuals interested in sharing their stories was not a simple task. Explaining the project and emphasizing the level of care that would be taken during the interview was vital and required reassurance and trust that we would present them in an unbiased light. In the lead-up to filming, pre-interview meetings and email communications helped build a relationship that led to filming locations becoming safe spaces in which interviewees would feel comfortable sharing openly.


The topic of SUDs can be difficult to discuss. As seen in the film, the subjects are extremely open when discussing their pasts and share stories that undoubtedly impact viewers. On behalf of The Center, we are honored to have been trusted to share these stories with the world in an effort to reduce stigma and evoke a positive change in our community.



As the film continues to connect with audiences on YouTube, it is our goal to reach viewers who can benefit from the perspectives shared on screen. This includes the possibility of future screening events and even film festivals. One such opportunity occurred recently at an event co-sponsored by The Center.


On Aug. 31, International Overdose Awareness Day, the film screened for an audience at the inaugural Waves of Awareness event in Cleveland’s Public Square. The event, organized by Stella Maris, featured activities to unite communities across Northeast Ohio to honor and remember those lost to accidental overdoses, share resources for treatment and help end the stigma of SUDs.


The day’s activities attracted business leaders, families, professional healthcare providers, individuals in recovery, and more. Screening the film for this audience was an opportunity for them to hear directly from people in their community who have experienced or treated SUDs. As a producer, it was impactful to witness audience members reacting to the film, providing confirmation of the film’s ability to create change.


Present at the event were two of the storytellers featured in the film, Sara Szelagowski and Jerome Reeves. Serving as DJ of the event, Reeves provided the audience with music and information between speakers on the main stage, while Szelagowski provided information about Project White Butterfly and the addiction treatment resources offered by her organization.




The film is available to view on The Center’s YouTube channel. We encourage you to share it with anyone you feel could benefit from a better understanding of the opioid epidemic through a glimpse into the lives of those with lived experiences. If you or someone you know is interested in hosting a screening of the film in front of an audience, we would welcome the opportunity to work with you. Please contact us.


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