On Friday, October 21, I had the privilege of attending a Faith Leaders Conference at Cedarville University on the opiate epidemic that has gripped Ohio. As someone who recently moved here from out-of-state, it was certainly eye-opening for me, and I would like to share with you all what I learned from the conference.
The problem: Ohio has seen a huge increase in the number of people with a heroin and/or opiate addiction in recent years. It has gotten to the point that we are losing 8 people per day to overdoses, and it has devastated families all over the state. One thing Attorney General Mike DeWine sought to make crystal clear: this is not an epidemic confined to certain areas, such as the inner cities. These drugs are everywhere, affecting all communities – in fact, they are more likely to be found in rural and suburban areas. Although addiction affects everyone, the typical user, says DeWine, would be a 35-year-old white male living in the suburbs. The conclusion is clear; it is not only “those” people in “those” communities that are affected by drugs.
Understanding the problem: Three fourths of people on heroin started out addicted to pain medication – meds that are prescribed for pain management after surgeries, accidents, etc. Those who do turn to heroin may start out small, but DeWine reminds us that a $15/day habit can quickly turn into a $1500/day habit. This is at least part of the reason why drug addiction isn’t just an individual problem. It is also a family issue. Entire families are easily destroyed financially and emotionally by a member’s addiction. And it is not something that is easily overcome.
Addiction, as Jim Joyner points out, is a chronic disease, and it deserves to be treated as such. The primary risk factors for addiction are the age of first use (currently the average age is 13-14 years old) and genetics. Some people are simply genetically predisposed to becoming addicted. All the participants in the conference agreed – only once we understand and accept that addiction is a healthcare issue instead of a criminal justice issue, and that it affects not only individuals but also entire families/communities, can we begin to address it.
Addressing the problem: Attorney General DeWine outlined several policy positions that we could take to potentially combat the opiate epidemic, including hospital/pain management reform and scientifically-based, age-appropriate prevention education in our schools. But what can the church do? What can faith communities throughout Ohio do to help address this problem? The panels of parents and pastors were clear: the #1 thing that churches and people of faith can do is to remove the stigma surrounding those who use and abuse drugs. Parents spoke about how they not only lost their children to addiction, but they also lost many of their friends in the process. Many choose not to speak up about the illness in their family for fear of being rejected by the people closest to them. For those who find themselves addicted, church can feel like the last place they would ever be welcome. Said Sheila Raye Charles – daughter of Ray Charles who was addicted to crack cocaine for 23 years – the church was supposed to be a place for “good” people, and she didn’t feel “good”. But, as one of the pastors at the conference so beautifully stated, church shouldn’t be a place for just the “good” people.
Church should be a place where it is expected that people will screw up. Sadly, that is not always the case. Another parent commented on how those who are addicted are treated like modern-day lepers in our society – we call them “clean” when they have been sober or in recovery, as if they used to be dirty. As if they used to be people who don’t belong. And that, said the parent, is simply untrue. They were always clean. They always belonged. They should have always been welcome.
So, let us, as people of faith, speak out about addiction. Let our support for families affected by this illness be made known. We can’t be afraid to talk about it, to welcome those who have an addiction, to be as prepared and knowledgeable as we possibly can so that if someone comes seeking help, we can help them.
Practical ways to help: There are many resources in Ohio available to those with an addiction as well as their families. The Attorney General’s office is prepared to offer support to faith communities dealing with this issue.
In addition, local organizations such as The Stand Project in Upper Arlington (thestandprojectua.org), ACT in Dublin (dublinact.org), and The Addict’s Parents United in Worthington (tapunited.org) are on the ground in these communities fighting substance abuse and providing support to families affected by it.
Other resources include Start Talking (starttalking.ohio.gov) and Recovery is Beautiful (recoveryisbeautiful.org).
There are also several faith-based organizations that provide on-site recovery treatment, including The Refuge (therefugeohio.org) and The Church on Cuomo (churchoncomo.org).
Finally, for families who are grieving the loss of a loved one, Grief Share (griefshare.org) is a national 12-week program that many have found helpful through the grieving process.
In addition to directing people toward these resources, the church can assist with recovery by providing a safe place for groups like NA and AA and by financially supporting recovery housing for folks making the transition from full-time recovery back into everyday society.
The church can help save
lives by providing access to Narcan kits (a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose) through organizations such as Project Dawn (healthy.ohio.gov/vipp/drug/ProjectDAWN.aspx)
A reminder: Addiction is an illness that affects both the individual and the family, and it must be treated as such. The many unhealthy behaviors exhibited by people who are addicted are merely symptoms of their illness and are not remotely indicative of who they are. In order to address these symptoms, we need to address the illness. We need to offer places of healing and wholeness for families while at the same time providing proper care and resources to those who have an addiction. I believe that communities of faith are poised to do just that.
For further education, the following books and films were recommended at the conference:
Dreamland by Sam Quinones
Clean by David Sheff
The Anonymous People, documentary directed by Greg D. Williams