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Addiction: How Churches Can Help Before It's Too Late

The number of U.S. drug overdose deaths has increased 118 percent since 1999, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Now, more than 100 people die from drug overdoses every day. "Those numbers represent a dramatic spike in the abuse of opioid drugs, including prescription pain killers and increasingly, heroin," according to correspondent Kim Lawton who prepared a 10-minute news video report on the subject for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a source for cutting edge reporting at the intersection of faith and culture. According to Michael Botticelli, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, "We have more people in the United States dying of drug related overdoses than we do motor vehicle fatalities and gunshots." 

The vast majority of heroin users started after abusing pain medication. That was the case with Richard Cizik Jr., who died from a heroin overdose at age 23, after breaking his wrist led to prescription Oxycontin use. "He was a beautiful son," said Evangelical Pastor Richard Cizik Sr. "He was the effusive, effervescent, upbeat, kind of optimistic kid you would always love to have, who never got into trouble" before his addiction began. In the aftermath of his son's death, Cizik is urging that faith communities become more involved in fighting the heroin epidemic. But it is an uphill struggle because people are hesitant to share details of addiction within their families.

Rev. Toby Larson, pastor of Cizik's church, Celebration Anglican Church, notes that "we're pretty good at pastoring families that have lost people. We're pretty good at burying people, [but] we're pretty lousy 10 years earlier when problems started, and that's where you feel like, wow, where was I, where … was everyone when we really needed to be there?" Unlike Rev. Larson, most clergy "don't want to admit that prescription drugs are a problem nor do they want to admit in their congregation that there may be people who are abusing drugs, legal and illegal," says Cizik, so "we're going to contact community leaders, including law enforcement officials and others, to raise the profile on the problem so that people understand what the threat is, first of all, and then of course, what they can do about it."

The church's role, Cizik and Larson said, includes education on prevention and treatment, and a willingness to embrace those who struggle with addiction, devoid of any sense of shame or shaming. For more on the drug epidemic, listen to acting director Bottichelli's additional comments, archived in a 7-minute set of interview excerpts on the Religion & Ethics Newsletter web site. Also read our feature reflection on how to support those who suffer, "Hearing Job: Vindicating the Traumatized.”

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