Faith must be a partner in battling opioid epidemic

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As people of faith, we cannot ignore the growing heroin and opioid crisis that engulfs our nation. The statistics are sobering. In 2016, Pennsylvania coroners and medical examiners reported more than 4,600 drug-related overdose deaths. That's nearly 13 people every day. Thousands more are affected by addiction, either personally, or through family, friends and loved ones. This crisis of horrific proportions has touched all corners of our state. It does not discriminate on the basis of religion or gender or race or socio-economic status. As a faith community, the Church is obligated to do its part to provide hope and healing to those who are suffering, lest they become another statistic.

People who struggle with addiction need to know that God has not abandoned them, and neither has their church. We know that faith can play a major role in addiction recovery. A study conducted by Dr. Eric Kocian of Saint Vincent College shows that among addicts who spoke with a priest, minister or rabbi, 95 percent of them said doing so was an effective component of their recovery process. Faith is a powerful antidote to addiction. Through our pastoral, charitable and health services, the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania are helping people find their way through recovery. The scope of addiction services offered by various outreaches of the Catholic dioceses is vast. For example, in Erie, its Catholic Charities counseling agency has several satellite locations with certified drug and alcohol counselors. The Harborcreek Youth Services is a Catholic Charities agency that provides psychiatric residential treatment services to adolescent boys, including those who struggle with drug problems.

In Philadelphia, Catholic Social Services runs a recovery house in Center City called Mercy Hospice for women struggling with substance abuse and their children. At St. Gabriel's Hall, Catholic Social Services provides a 30-bed drug and alcohol program for young men adjudicated by the Philadelphia court system.

In Harrisburg, the Catholic Charities’ Evergreen House is a residential half-way house that treats people coming out of detox, after which they can transfer to Crescent and Willow Recovery Homes, which offer independent supportive housing to those recovering from addiction.

These efforts are just a sample of the support services our Catholic dioceses undertake to help individuals in their battle with addiction. As we are called to serve, the opioid epidemic is leading Catholics to new ministries where we can provide spiritual care and counseling. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference seeks partnerships within our communities that will help us combat the opioid crisis at its core. The PCC also supports statewide initiatives that attack our growing drug problem, including legislation that requires recovery houses to enforce minimum safety standards, and legislation that provides for an emergency detoxification program to utilize existing beds in health care facilities to better service people with a substance abuse emergency.

As Christians, we can start by offering our prayers. We must also focus our energies on finding avenues to provide education, support and treatment in a nonjudgmental, loving environment. While some may be tempted to see drug addiction as a moral failing, we must respond to the opioid epidemic as a public health crisis. We must treat drug abuse as a disease, not a sin. Only then can we, as a faith community, provide true, compassionate healing for the body and soul of those who are struggling, no matter what path led them there.

The heroin and opioid crisis is a plague that has touched the very hearts and souls of parishioners in the pews and the people living in our communities. It's an epidemic that spans our cities, towns and rural areas. Our Christian faith compels us to take action, to be part of the solution, and to choose hope over hopelessness.

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