Church groups respond to opioid crisis

By any measure, the opioid epidemic in the United States has reached crisis proportions.

In 2015, more than 52,000 people were killed by drug overdoses, more than died in car crashes or by gunshots, according to information released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December 2016. It was the highest number of deaths ever recorded due to drug overdose, an 11 percent increase over the number of overdose deaths recorded in 2014, which was itself a record.

It came with significant increases in overdoses on opioids, a class of drugs that includes heroin, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, and prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. Heroin deaths were up 23 percent, to 12,989. Prescription opioid deaths rose 4 percent, to 17,536.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 91 people in the United States die every day from drug overdoses.

State of devastation

Those numbers mean that parish priests are seeing the fallout among families in their pews and that Catholic health care and social service agencies are on the front lines of the crisis. Father John Mahoney, director of clinical services for Catholic Charities of New Hampshire, said his state has the second-highest per capita death rate from drug overdoses, and the agency could not stand by and do nothing.

“The problem is staring us in the face,” Father Mahoney said. “It’s a public health issue. We couldn’t turn our backs on these people.”

New Hampshire had an age-adjusted overdose death rate of 34.3 per 100,000 people in 2015, second highest of any state in the nation, behind West Virginia. The number was expected to grow from 422 overdose deaths in 2015 to about 478 in 2016, according to projections from the state medical examiner’s office, he said.

The problem was that people who were suffering from addiction to opioids — both those with substance abuse disorder and their family members — were not coming to Catholic Charities on their own to seek help, said Father Mahoney, who is both a licensed mental health counselor and a canon lawyer.

So the counseling staff met to pray and discuss their options, he said. “We decided to use the Christian model,” Father Mahoney said. “Jesus didn’t stay in a clinic or an office. He went into the marketplace and healed the people he met there. So we said, what about the families of people who are addicted? Is anyone reaching out to them?”

‘Such a stigma’

The counselors developed a presentation they have taken to communities around the state, talking about the prevalence of opioid abuse, how to communicate with family members you believe may be abusing opioids, how to set boundaries with those family members and avoid enabling them.

The presentations include a talk from a mother of two adult children who became addicted to opioids and from counselors who run family support groups, he said.

So far, more than 250 people have attended those presentations, which are continuing this spring. At the same time, Father Mahoney said, Catholic Charities of New Hampshire will launch the second phase of its response to the crisis, reaching out directly to people with substance use disorder in communities where help has been requested by local parishes as well as public safety and social service agencies.

Counselors with expertise in substance use disorder will offer intake services and referrals, Father Mahoney said. He hopes that the work the agency has done with family members, and locating services in the community, will help.

“We noticed that addicted individuals were not coming to us for direct-care services,” he said. “There is so much shame and guilt associated with substance use disorder, and individuals would be embarrassed to come to the Catholic Church for help.”

That makes it even more important for the Church to treat the epidemic as a public health problem and treat substance use disorder as a disease, not a sin, he said.

“There is such a stigma attached to it, and so many people do see it as a sin,” he said. “Our goal is to reduce the stigma.”

Many people are believed to become addicted after taking prescribed pain medications, or gaining access to opioids prescribed to others, and legislative bodies have focused on the over-prescription of opioid painkillers.

Finding leadership

On March 28, the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee announced an investigation into five of the top makers of opioid medications. “The investigation will explore whether pharmaceutical manufacturers — at the head of the opioids pipeline — have contributed to opioid over-utilization and over-prescription as overdose deaths in the last 15 years have approached nearly 200,000,” according to a press release on the investigation.

That investigation comes a year after the Massachusetts state legislature unanimously passed a bill calling for greater efforts at prevention of opioid abuse and limiting first-time prescriptions for opioid painkillers to a seven-day supply.

Before the law was passed, the Massachusetts Catholic bishops urged the legislature to take action.

“The abuse and misuse of opioids has become a national and local epidemic that has increasingly been felt in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in recent years,” the bishops of the four dioceses in Massachusetts wrote in the 2016 statement. “On average, four people lose their lives each day in this state, due to illegal and legal drug overdoses. It is a disturbing trend that must be stopped. ...

“The lives negatively impacted by this disaster represent all economic, age, gender or racial categories. The impact is far reaching, leading to the eventual breakdown of families, friendships, neighborhoods and communities.”

Massachusetts Catholic Conference Executive Director James Driscoll said the bishops made the statement because the crisis has become so deep and widespread.

“This is going on in poor and rich neighborhoods,” he said. “It spares no race or socioeconomic groups. I think the Church is always about reaching out to people who are suffering, and there are people suffering because of this. The Church offers its support and counsel and compassion to people who are suffering because of this.”

Illustrating this is a recent pastoral statement penned by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, of Vancouver, which encourages local parishes and schools to consider an empathetic, practical response to the crisis. Such steps, he said, include encouraging elected officials to improve treatment and care for the addicted; advocating for tighter regulations of opioid manufacturing; calling for better education regarding safe-prescribing practices; and promoting support services in parishes and elsewhere.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.