Responding to the Opioid Epidemic and Shortage of Addictions CounselorsBy Catherine Mueller-Bell on March 14, 2016
Last month, NPR ran a story about the opioid (e.g., heroin) epidemic and the shortage of addiction counselors to respond to the problem. New Hampshire had been in the news as having an acute addiction crisis with politicians calling for more treatment options. It's good news that addiction and the need for treatment are getting attention (although we should acknowledge the tragedy that communities of color didn't get this "gentler" response decades ago).
Addiction requires more than judgment and incarceration. It requires care and treatment, and followers of Christ should be part of the solution.
The tendency for human beings to become addicted to substances or behaviors is rooted in the fall of humankind, and it transcends cultural contexts of all societies in the world. The addictive personality and the affliction of addiction do not discriminate. People from all walks of life and diverse contexts can struggle with various addictions. That includes any gender, age, race, socioeconomic class, education, marital status, etc.
How does addiction work?
Substance addictions involve a degenerative process of experimenting with mind-altering substances like alcohol and both illegal and prescription drugs. However, there are also behavioral or "process" addictions, which can include obsessive-compulsive behaviors that become habitual and ritualistic. These include pornography, self-mutilation, work, exercise, gambling and even social media addictions. As humans, we can get addicted to just about anything.
The insidious nature of addictions is when a person engages in the addictive behavior regardless of personal, legal or medical consequences. The person often describes feeling out of control and experiences cravings that can be due to psychological and eventually physical dependency.
This process tends to begin with a person's attempt to relieve the pain of emotions like anxiety, boredom or depression. Many people who become addicted explain that they are attempting to "self-medicate" in order to cope and decrease the stress in their lives. The substances or compulsive, repetitive behaviors provide an escape, a "numbing" of the mind to stop thinking and detach from what they are feeling.
The problem with addictive substances and behaviors is that they work. Many explain that they do experience initial relief and a break from the negative consequences of stress, both physically and psychologically. The trouble, obviously, begins when the body becomes accustomed to the chemical changes that occur in the brain. Those changes and the temporary relief they bring can be addictive, which is where dependency begins (Van Wormer & Davis, 2012).
Heroin addiction is on the rise in America like never before, but it often starts elsewhere, such as addictive pain killers. One of those substances is in the opioid family of prescription drugs, e.g., oxycodone. When a person becomes addicted to the prescription form of this drug and seeks to use it beyond what is medically recommended, they cannot get access to it legally. They have to find other sources, so the trend of seeking a similar substance (e.g., heroin) on the street is rising.
This path toward addiction is affecting subgroups of people in all socioeconomic groups across the United States and the world, so the perception of who a "heroin addict" is does not match reality in 2016. An addicted person can be anyone from any culture or any context.
How should followers of Christ respond to this disturbing trend?
The increase of drug addiction in America and the ineffectiveness of the "war on drugs" to curb it has led to an increase in training programs for addiction counselors and a need for drug rehabilitation programs. However, there is a problem! We do not have enough training or rehabilitation programs for people suffering from addictions.
We need more affordable and effective drug treatment programs that provide inpatient and outpatient, individual and group counseling. Most programs that are presently available can cost $5,000-30,000 per month and are inaccessible to many people. Programs like Teen Challenge are triumphant since they provide a faith-based recovery model at an affordable rate and provide long-term care (12-15 months) in most every state in America. They have an 85% success rate for those who complete the program, and their biblically-based discipleship program is Christ-centered and focused on spiritual disciplines.
We also need certified addictions counselors who are informed and professionally trained as well. Many graduate school programs, such as the Addictions Certificate at GRTS that launched several years ago, teach counselors how to facilitate a process of healing, transformation, personal growth and change. Clients learn how to increase their capacity to be present and tolerate uncomfortable emotions and stress in a constructive manner. Whether the program is a medically-based, faith-based, or offers lay or professional counseling, the person seeking to overcome the addictive lifestyle can have a transformative experience to help them live a productive life, if they get help in time.
That's where compassionate followers of Jesus can step in and be a source of care, comfort and healing.
The emotional and physical pain that is associated with addictions is profound and can have ripple effects to family, friends, the community and society as a whole. Providing quality care, intervention and effective treatment will not only save lives, but promote healing to family members and efforts towards prevention as well. Only the most courageous will choose the challenging yet rewarding process of rehabilitation. These are the true warriors and survivors who provide hope and encouragement to others in need.
On March 6, Black Balloon Day raised awareness about the death rate from overdose due to the opiate epidemic. There is a lot of hope when the silence is broken and the stigma is overcome, so people who are struggling with addictions can get the help and support from the community that is so desperately needed.
- Van Wormer, K. & Davis, D.R. (2012). Addictions Treatment: A Strengths Perspective. Belmont, CA: Brooks Cole Publishing.