A response to the opioid epidemic

By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

When we hear the word “epidemic” we typically think of a disease like Ebola or some virus or infection that spreads rapidly and causes much illness and death.  In the case of the current opioid epidemic, the disease is addiction and the results are as catastrophic as any killer disease.

Our country is currently experiencing a staggering pandemic of drugs that is taking the lives of millions and causes misery and sorrow to millions more family members and friends of the victims. The statistics are unbelievable. According to the health department, in 2016 there were 4,642 drug overdose deaths in PA (up by 37%); in Maryland there were 830 cases (up by 66%); and in Delaware 308 people died (up by 30%).

Nationally the number of overdose deaths in 2016 exceeded 59,000 (up by 19%).  All are reporting increases in deaths happening in the suburban areas of their states.  This epidemic is crossing all lines of class and culture.  The Philadelphia Inquirer (June 1, 2017) reported that librarians are being trained to administer the lifesaving overdose antidote Narcan as part of their job.  “Overdose drills” are as common as fire drills in public library facilities like the one in Kensington.

Recently I visited the Lebanon Women’s Detention Center and Chaplain Marilyn Nolte, with the Eastern PA Conference Cabinet.  I met a number of inmates. Many of them are incarcerated because of drug offenses and have a history of drug addiction.

Most shocking to me was the large pink heart we saw on the bulletin board that was cut in two to indicate a broken heart.  On the heart were the names of at least 100 women who had been in the prison, had done their time and gotten out, and had either committed suicide or died from drug overdoses.  These are our young people, each one a precious daughter, wife or mother, trapped in the chains of this disease.  I thank God that we have a UM chaplain there working with these women.

It is easy to throw up our hands in despair when we read these statistics and hear these stories. But as people of faith, every one of us can do something to light a candle of hope.  The recent “UNITE Quakertown” anti-drug abuse rally, sponsored June 10 at a local park by Quakertown UMC, brought together interfaith partners, human service agencies and community groups, along with musical performers and speakers. All are helping to spread the word about this terrible epidemic of opioid abuse and offer some practical things people can do.

Here are some of the “take-aways” from this day-long community festival:

  • View addiction as a disease and not a moral failure.
  • Decriminalize and offer more treatment options instead of prison time.
  • Set up more Narcotics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery groups in churches and communities.
  • Teach elementary school children about the dangers of drugs.
  • Offer after-school and summer programs for at-risk young people.
  • Partner with hospitals to support drug-addicted mothers and their addicted newborns.
  • Pray for and with addicted people and their families.
  • Promote laws and governmental policies that keep funding for health insurance and Medicaid that assists with drug addiction remedies.

At our Lenten Day Apart for clergy next February, in both the Eastern PA and Peninsula-Delaware annual conferences, we will have more conversation about drug addiction. The Rev. Dr. Barry Steiner-Ball will present some of his work in this area of community outreach and treatment.

The root cause of drug use and drug abuse is pain.  We experience physical pain, emotional pain and spiritual pain in life, and drugs may at first take away that pain.  But with continual use and increased dosages it can easily become an addiction.

People of faith can come alongside people suffering pain, all kinds of pain, to offer healing, encouraging community support and helpful spiritual resources that no pain pill can offer.  As followers of Christ and loving ambassadors of the gospel, we can bring the words of life to this drug world of death.  Always offer people Christ and make your church a place of welcome and support.

Read and comment on this post on The Bishop’s Blog.