3 Things Faith Leaders Can Do to Address the Opioid Epidemic

Education & Health Equity | Clinton Global Initiative, Overdose Response Network

In neighborhoods across America, faith leaders have broad reach and access, and community members turn to faith leaders in times of crisis. As such, faith leaders are uniquely positioned to address the opioid epidemic by educating and supporting members, sharing resources, and working to change false perceptions of addiction.
In fact, data shows that:

  • For many adults who seek help with mental health or substance use problems, the first person contacted is clergy, rather than a mental health specialist.
  • Faith leaders are often in long-term relationships with their congregants, which enable them to detect signs of distress and intervene early.
  • Nearly 40% of Americans attend a religious service at least once per week. 33% attend at least a few times per year.

The Clinton Foundation’s Opioid Response Network works with influential faith leaders in hard-hit communities across the country, and we asked partners Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner of Jacksonville Jewish Center, Rev. Melissa Maher, Lead Pastor and Tony Springer, Recovery Advocate Director at Mercy Street in Houston, and Rev. Joanna Seibert, MD and Deacon at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Little Rock about what other faith leaders can do to fight this crisis in their communities.

Here are 3 things faith leaders can do:

1. Talk about addiction and recovery with your congregation

Melissa Maher: The first step is talking about the prevalence of the disease of addiction in our congregations. I don’t know of a single family who has not been impacted by addiction. When we talk about the disease of addiction and the many pathways of recovery, we fight against the stigma. Faith leaders can empower individuals in their congregation to be the spokespersons for change. Personally, I share my journey of mental health challenges.

Tony Springer: Opening dialogue from the pulpit using your own language makes people feel open and safe about talking to their faith leader about the issue. Recovery can be woven into any topic. A common misperception is that you must change your beliefs to talk about this issue, but there’s so much common ground that there is room regardless of your beliefs.

Joanna Seibert: I’m very open with my congregation about my recovery. That way, someone who is seeking recovery doesn’t have apprehension about coming to me and talking about it.

Jonathan Lubliner: Preach a sermon on the topic. I shared in a recent prayer that if we, as a community, stuck by the anachronism that addiction is a moral failing rather than a treatable disease, we will effectively be closing a door on our brothers and sisters — be failing to live up to the highest ethical ideals of Judaism, the dictum that one who saves a life, saves a world. If we could but take that first step toward our brothers, sisters, friends, and neighbors struggling to regain their lives, we’d not only help them get better, we’d help ourselves be better.

2. Have resources available and invite in experts

Joanna Seibert: Have resources on treatment and recovery readily available when someone comes to you for help and have information easily accessible to the entire congregation. We have experts come and talk about the opioid crisis — how someone can become addicted in just a few days and how you can reverse an overdose with naloxone and save a life, so I now carry Narcan with me, and it is in our church in several places in case someone needs it. We also host a retreat every year for people who are in recovery and have a yearly recovery Sunday with recovery literature and speakers who share their own recovery journey.

Jonathan Lubliner: Call Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to get materials about addiction and recovery, and place them in the lobby so that they are easily accessible. Many of the materials are free and are an invaluable source of help. There’s a lot of information out there, including materials from the various religious denominations. Offer Mental Health First Aid training to your congregation. The 8-hour course teaches to identify, understand, and respond to mental health issues and substance use disorders in your community. The more people we train, the more resilient we are as a community. We are in the process of creating a local NA group and have sponsored various educational programs about addiction for the community. We also invite experts who can talk about symptoms, treatments, and ways to overcome stigma.

3. Create supportive programs

Tony Springer: Structure a program to meet the needs of people who have a substance use disorder. Show people that help is available within the church. That there is a person to talk to. A service or a program to help that person directly. For a lot of people, they have no one else to talk to about these challenges.

Melissa Maher: Our weekly worship gathering provides a space to celebrate milestones in life, including recovery anniversaries. Everyone is invited to bring the fullness of their faith and doubt in God.

Tony Springer: These celebrations allow the community to be more vulnerable and share. The ability to share your successes and failure is something that can bring a community together. This the glue at Mercy Street. It’s very rare to talk about sober time at church. When it happens, it allows others to feel ok about their situation and allows us to celebrate our successes together. We give hope by sharing personal experiences of where we were and where we are today.

Melissa Maher: After worship, we offer three groups: Spirituality and Recovery, which takes the theme of the sermon and leads a recovery meeting around the topic. We also offer Narcotics Anonymous and a mental health peer support group.

Tony Springer: At the Spirituality and Recovery meeting, people in recovery discuss the topic of the sermon and how it relates to their own personal recovery. A lot of times during a church service, you’re listening, nodding your head like you understand, but to have an outlet to unpack what was discussed, go further and see the direct relationship it has to your personal recovery — it allows you to put your own personal stamp or response on what you heard that night, how it relates to you and allows you to have personal growth.

Melissa Maher: We are 22 years old as a church and are committed to providing hope in this conversation.