Faith communities respond to opioid crisis

ORLANDO | “The number of people in any given faith community who’s in trouble or knows someone who’s in trouble is huge,” said Gary Tester, executive director of Catholic Charities of Central Florida. “Anybody who is addicted should be looked at with compassion, following Jesus’ call in the Gospel of Matthew, ‘When I was sick you cared for me.’”

Catholic Charities has joined the faith-based taskforce headed by Dr. Joel Hunter, founder of the Community Resource Network. The taskforce aims to raise awareness of opioid abuse, offer resources to churches and families and most importantly walk with those who are struggling.

A recent study from the American Psychiatric Association revealed one in three people in the United States knows someone addicted to opioids, an estimated 2 million people are addicted to prescription opioid pain medication and the number of deaths related to opioid overdose doubled from 2010 to 2016.

“There is so much churches can do. We are a healing community and we want to be at the forefront of responding to this devastating epidemic,” said Dr. Hunter, who explained hospitals and police departments only have resources for short-term care. “Someone who is recovering from addiction needs to be part of a community that will be with them long-term, and that’s where the church comes in. The problem is not only the drug, it is the emptiness that people are trying to replace with the drug.”

The ministries of Catholic Charities of Central Florida are able to assist with the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of people struggling with opioid addiction. As a person goes through the recovery process, Emergency Family Services can help with food and financial needs and through care coordination, Behavioral Health Services ensures they receive the best counseling for their unique situation.

“We not only have our own small network of licensed mental health clinicians and licensed clinical social workers, but we also have contract therapists we work with and we’re aware of community agencies that we can refer to as well,” explained Tester. “Care coordination is taking the person who made the inquiry and getting them connected to the right community resources and not letting go of them until we know they’re established.”

In addition to recovery services, Catholic Charities can provide “Mental Health First Aid” training to groups that work with vulnerable populations, educating on symptoms and warning signs of drug addiction and how to know when more professional help is needed. Catholic Charities is also working with the taskforce to create a toolkit for faith communities which will provide practical tools and resources for their congregations. The toolkit will include information on a 12-step program and a network listing of treatment facilities in the local area.

“The taskforce has talked about the importance of prevention and how to make parishioners aware of the issues related to opioids and the scope of the crisis that’s out there,” said Tester. “The more people are aware of it, the more they can watch their children and make sure they are making good decisions. Should a child begin to make unfortunate decisions, then they will be equipped to handle that right up front.”

Dr. Hunter said one of the most important things a church community can do is destigmatize the problem. Many people addicted to opioids began by taking a legitimate prescription from a trusted healthcare professional. Once the prescription ends, the patient may begin to seek out stronger drugs, moving rapidly from abuse to addiction. Suddenly they don’t know what to do or where to turn for help.

“We want people in our congregations to feel safe in saying, ‘I’m struggling’ or ‘a family member is struggling’. Just a prayer that the priest or a pastor prays that says, ‘Lord please be with those who struggle with addiction’ just a mention like that lets them know that this is a safe place where they can get some counsel or some encouragement or some support because we recognize there are people in our congregation who are struggling,” said Dr. Hunter.

The taskforce hopes that by offering trainings and providing the toolkit they will empower bystanders to become first responders in the opioid crisis. Dr. Hunter believes that faith communities have a unique role to play.

“I think we have a role in education for the purpose of prevention and some role in intervention,” said Dr. Hunter. “But our largest role will be in recovery and support because that’s what we do well. We are people who include those who are in trouble. That’s where the church will be just indispensable when it comes to responding to this opioid epidemic.”

By Elizabeth Wilson, Florida Catholic correspondent – May 28, 2019