Opioid Crisis in the Pew

Hope Wrought by Faith

by Jim Morgan and Joe Bohn

Opioid abuse has likely already found its way into your congregation. The face of the opioid crisis is no longer the heroin addict strung out on the streets. Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.1 He’s the former football player who is a frequent attender silently dealing with the long-term effects of knee injuries. She’s the mother of two in the back pew, suffering from loneliness and relationship issues originating from childhood sexual abuse. It’s even the teenager in the youth group experimenting with pills, succumbing to peer pressure.

Overdoses and deaths from prescription and illegal opioid usage are dramatically increasing across the country. In 2017, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported over 70,237 drug-overdose deaths, up from 36,010 drug-overdose deaths a decade earlier. The annual cost of prevention, treatment, recovery, and deaths reached $78.5 billion in 2016.2

Tampa Bay Churches Join the Fight

In 2016, there were 2,798 opioid-related overdose deaths in Florida—a rate of 14.4 deaths per 100,000 persons, compared to the national rate of 13.3 deaths per 100,000 according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. On the west coast of Florida, a group of pastors, other faith leaders, academia and community partners have taken action to increase education, awareness and support, while reducing stigma associated with the addiction crisis. Under Humana’s national Bold Goal initiative, aimed at addressing key national public health challenges, a cross-sectoral group of partners across three counties is working to stem the tide of opioid addiction. In the early planning stages, the partnership channeled their efforts into engaging faith leaders in the crisis.

Why faith leaders? In evaluating the root causes for opioid abuse, as well as the pathways out of addiction, a recurring theme emerged—the critical role of hope wrought by faith. People from all population segments often turn to faith leaders as a first source for help in coping with personal and family crises. Faith-based organizations (FBOs) undeniably are important players in our nation’s public health safety net, sustaining and enhancing the emotional, physical and spiritual health of those who struggle.3 The support system of a church family, counseling by faith leaders, and programs offered by FBOs significantly reduce substance abuse, violence, and crime in local communities, regardless of affluence or economic disadvantage. In fact, even the US Department of Health and Human Services recognizes the importance of engaging faith leaders, publishing the “Opioid Epidemic Practical Toolkit: Helping Faith and Community Leaders Bring Hope and Healing to Our Communities” in 2018.

Strategy and Structure

Starting in January 2018, representatives from over 50 regional FBOs, health providers, public agencies, and educational institutions began to discuss local challenges and activities related to the opioid crisis, mental health, and suicide. All three counties recognized that mental health issues lay at the root of opioid misuse, yet there was a wide variance in community health repercussions for each county. While confronting similar causal factors, the counties were dealing with different sets of downstream issues. One experienced high suicide rates. A second saw the detrimental impact of opioid addiction on child and family welfare, while the third was concerned about spikes in homelessness and crime.

Given these differences, the planning committee formed three county-specific leadership teams—one for Hillsborough, another for Pasco and a third for Pinellas. The teams put together initial forums, which were held in the fall of 2018. Each forum attracted roughly 100 attendees, primarily faith leaders, service providers, community partners, and university and high school students. Agendas at each forum followed the same order, based on an approach and objectives around a model created by a university doctoral student and coined “E4.”

  1. Educate—awareness of alarming crisis statistics and trends
  2. Empower—awakening to the signs of addiction, as well as local resources and initiatives
  3. Engage—action each faith leader can take to address the crisis within communities and congregations
  4. Equip—availability of best practices and tools to assist faith leaders and accountability for taking advantage of them to address the crisis

Following the forums, the planning committee launched ongoing efforts to reach out to faith leaders and more partners proactively, reinforcing the messages from the forums with those who attended and sharing them with those who could not attend. Additional workshops were planned with representatives from targeted communities, including Hispanic and Muslim neighbors being impacted by opioid abuse. The E4 stakeholder mobilization framework approach is being carried forward and adopted as a simple model for pastors and other faith leaders to implement changes within their congregations. Overall this regional grassroots initiative has stimulated new interest in the intersection of faith-based and secular collaboration around educational programming related to behavioral health and substance abuse.

What Can Your Church Do?

Even with the door wide open to demonstrate the love of Jesus to a waiting world, most pastors and churches remain largely unaware of or uninvolved in the opioid crisis. Opioid use is entirely centered around one objective: pain alleviation, whether physical or psychological. What all faith leaders must realize is that the opioid crisis is not about drugs. It is about escaping the harsh reality of seemingly unresolvable pain—from surgeries, PTSD, depression, isolation, failed relationships, socioeconomic conditions, child neglect or abuse.

C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Many must understandably seek relief responsibly through legal opiates, but escapism beyond what is necessary through abuse of legal or illegal pain medications is not God’s will. Romans 5:3–4 says, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”—the critical role of hope wrought by faith.

No doubt, at least a few members of every congregation are in physical or psychological anguish. Consequently, if you surveyed your church, there is a good chance that nearly every family has been touched in some way by the opioid crisis—not to mention alcohol addiction.

Churches have a unique opportunity to come alongside those suffering, especially their own members, at three critical stages—prevention, intervention and recovery. However, most faith leaders hesitate to speak openly about the opioid crisis and share facts about the dangers. This contributes to the stigma surrounding addiction. Pastors can lead the way in demonstrating the love of Jesus by removing that stigma, offering acceptance, and finding the natural places to talk about the spiritual dimension of whole-person healing. Faith leaders can train members to recognize the signs and intervene boldly, reducing the risk that those in pain will fall to temptation or continue to abuse opiates. And the consequences of succumbing are dire, costing many their faith, families, careers, savings, health and lives. Consider the impact on children as well, like me (Jim), who for all practical purposes lost my mom as a young boy to prescription drug and alcohol addiction.

Yet few pastors have the opioid crisis on their radar. Most have not personally encountered it in their churches even though almost certainly it is present there, carefully concealed to cover shame. Even if someone did approach them about an addiction of any kind, much less an opiate, few faith leaders are well equipped to respond. This could change with increased education, awareness, and collaboration geared toward greater collective impact.

What is happening in Tampa Bay is an example of where collaboration between faith-based groups and the wider community can achieve a common goal. It is working because cross-sectional partners have found a common agenda and are committed to a shared vision—decreasing opiate addiction. Congregations are a vital resource.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” The mounting opioid crisis threatens our congregations and communities. Moving forward, we each have a choice. We can recognize and stand up to the challenge. We can seek opportunities to reduce the stigma felt by those burdened with addiction. We can educate and mobilize for the sake of our neighbors in need—strengthening congregational care.

Sometimes it is the little changes we make that lead to the greatest benefit in society.4

Think of the power in your messages. The sermons, the prayers, and counseling those who are suffering, often seemingly without hope. But hope can always be found in Jesus Christ. We have a chance to remove stigma, eradicate pain, and bring light back into the lives of those in need. One person at a time, the healing begins and we can restore many in our society who have been trapped in this national public health crisis.

Notes

  1. K. E. Vowles, M. L. McEntee, P. S. Julnes, T. Frohe, J. P. Ney, and D. N. van der Goes. “Rates of Opioid Misuse, Abuse, and Addiction in Chronic Pain: A Systematic Rand Data Synthesis,” Pain (2015).
  2. C. S. Florence, C. Zhou, F. Luo, L. Xu. “The Economic Burden of Prescription Opioid Overdose, Abuse, and Dependence in the United States, 2013.” Med Care (2016).
  3. J. Levin, “Partnerships between the Faith-based and Medical Sectors: Implications for Preventive Medicine and Public Health.” Preventive Medicine Reports 4 (2016): 344–350.
  4. H. J. Bohn, “Improving the Health of Communities: A Systems Perspective for the Next Generation,” in Population Health. Management, Policy, and Innovation, 2nd ed. eds. R. J. Esterhay, L. S. Nesbitt, J. H. Taylor, and H. J. Bohn. Second Edition (Norfolk, PA: Convurgent, 2017), 189.

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