Overdosing from despair: How the Church can fight the opioid epidemic

Overdosing from despair: How the Church can fight the opioid epidemic

Overdosing from despair: How the Church can fight the opioid epidemic

(Credit: Eric Norris/Flickr.)

More people are dying than ever from overdosing on painkillers, and the Church is trying to help. Some pain is part of being human: Having no pain is dangerous. Christianity sees pain as both an opportunity for virtue and a union with Jesus: The pain of Christians is far more meaningful, and thus endurable.

Commentary

I recently had a hernia operation and was given a week’s worth of opioid painkillers for afterwards. Recovering from surgery, and dealing with the pain and discomfort inherent in such things, made me think about the current epidemic of addiction to painkillers in the United States, which has led to the highest rate of drug overdoses ever in the country.

According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, 2015 saw over 50,000 deaths and both 2016 and 2017 are expected to be higher.

In fact, fatal heroin overdoses, which went up five times between 2007 and 2015, surpassed gun homicides for the first time ever.

We as a Church need to speak to people where they are and obviously drugs, especially opioids responsible for about two-thirds of drug overdose deaths, are now a big part of many people’s lives. So the Church can’t be silent.

One good example of speaking out is the Archdiocese of Vancouver in Canada. Archbishop J. Michael Miller said, “In 2017 Vancouver, Jesus would also identify himself with those afflicted by mental illness and addiction… as His disciples, we are called to do likewise.” One Catholic hospital there treated 42 overdoses in two days!

The archbishop noted three primary causes: Over-prescribing opioids, social isolation, and mental illness.

I agree with Miller, but I think two more could be added to the list: The loss of a religious worldview, and the idea that we should always be pain-free.

The Church has no control over how easy it is to get opioid prescriptions and only limited control over access to help for mental illness. But by nurturing a full Christian life we also reduce social isolation and eliminate the mentality that we should always be pain-free.

Religious belief and practice is linked to a reduction in marijuana use among teens and regular drinking among adults.

Dramatic results – more than a 50 percent reduction in use in some demographics – for religious practice in general.  I think a specifically Catholic-Christian worldview can offer much more. A Christian worldview offers meaning for pain, builds up our community, and gives us hope in something greater.

Meaningful Pain

Christianity finds far clearer meaning in pain than most worldviews. If pain has meaning, then we don’t need to remove every trace; and this reduces opioid prescriptions and use. (I’m not saying all pain is good, or people should needlessly suffer – but just that not all pain is bad.)

After my hernia operation, I took one of the strong opioid painkillers the first night, but really didn’t see a need for anything more than a few Advils after. Sure, I was a little uncomfortable for a few days and had some pain, but I could live with a bit of pain. (In fact, I wrote most of this article in bed recovering from the operation.)

Some pain is part of being human: Having no pain is dangerous. Congenital insensitivity to pain is actually a rare genetic disorder. Most affected by it don’t live past age 3, since they might chew their figures off causing infection, cause self-harm in another way, or overheat quite easily.

Talking to a psychologist, he said you always want to worry when the ideal feeling a person asks for is to feel no pain at all. That is a suicide wish.

In Christianity, our sufferings are joined with those of Jesus on the cross, as St. Paul says (Colossians 1:24): “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.”

Secularism, on the other hand, struggles for an answer for human pain.

So do New Age beliefs, Islam, or paganism, whether modern or ancient.

Hinduism has a resignation to pain as part of karma. Buddhism is an attempt to leave the world of sensing anything, so we no longer feel pain.

Confucianism does sees pain as a lesson to grow in virtue: Learning from pain is part of the Christian meaning, too, but is not the most important thing we get from our suffering.

Christianity sees pain as both an opportunity for virtue and a union with Jesus: The pain of Christians is far more meaningful, and thus endurable.

Christian Community

It seems self-evident that being religious reduces social isolation because being religious immediately provides another set of relationships in that religious setting.

Sociologists have even found low participation in religious activities as a health risk caused by increased social isolation.

But it isn’t just sociology.

Catholic theology teaches us that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and together we make up the family of God, the Church.

If religion is seen as simply me and God, it may have extrinsic socialization that reduces social isolation: However, since our faith includes the community, the sociological aspect goes deeper into a spiritual aspect.

A consequence of this is that even when we are alone, we are not socially isolated.

When I receive the Eucharist, I am united to every other person in the Eucharist more than I am united to someone in the same room. This “Communion of Saints” relieves social isolation even when no other person can be physically sensed.

Christian Hope

The last and most profound actor is Christian hope. We know that a better world is coming so long as we respond to God’s grace. This is not a mere possibility, but a certainty.

We have probably all heard that when you put rats in a cage with water and heroin-laced water, all the rats will eventually overdose.

One researcher in the late 1970’s decided to test if this would also apply if the rats were given a great environment, as opposed to the usual laboratory cage.

After keeping rats in small cages for 57 days drinking morphine-laced water, the rats were brought into an ideal rat environment with more space, abundant food, toys, and mating partners.

During this “Rat Park” experiment, the rodents were offered more morphine-laced water, but most chose the plain water.

This may break your vision of addiction, but it’s replicated in humans.

Jerome Jaffe, who headed the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention (SAODAP) under President Richard Nixon, tracked returning soldiers addicted to heroin in Vietnam and found only 5% relapsed in the first year.

In other words, 95% of heroin addicts lost their addiction when they were put in a situation with far more hope than the violent jungles of Southeast Asia.

A deep Christian worldview, not just 60 minutes of Sunday morning religious entertainment, gives us hope for a better future. A deeply Christian worldview goes to the heart of who we are and lets us see the positive in everything, because we see a world transformed by Christ.

I think there are many things we need to help resolve the opioid crisis that is growing at an alarming rate. I think the Church can help with many of these programs.

However, beyond all initiatives like changing prescription rates or getting better access to mental healthcare, we need to provide people with Jesus Christ. A Christian worldview gives hope, gives community, and gives meaning to our pain.

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