Opioid Epidemic: What Can Parishes Do?
The statistics are alarming. More than 100 deaths every month are attributed to opioid overdoses. Many of these began using prescription painkillers –in 2014, more than 240 million opioid pills were prescribed by Massachusetts physicians. There are only 6.5 million residents in the Commonwealth. “Opioid addiction is an epidemic here in the Commonwealth,” Governor Charlie Baker declared before a task force set up to address the issue. “The only debate is what to do and when.”
In March 2016, the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts issued a joint statement echoing the governor’s sentiments. “The abuse and misuse of opioids has become a national and local epidemic that has increasingly been felt in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in recent years. On average, four people lose their lives each day in this state, due to illegal and legal drug overdoses. It is a disturbing trend that must be stopped,” read the statement signed by all four Massachusetts bishops.
Please follow this link for resources for drug and alcohol addiction support and recovery services:
What Can Parishes Do?
For parishes, knowing what to do is not always easy. How can a parish support families experiencing the pain of opioid addiction? What about the people afflicted with addiction: how to provide support, without enabling? What about finding used needles on church property?
Father Joe White, Pastor of St. Joseph’s in Boston and director of the Archdiocesan Addiction Recovery Pastoral Support Services (AARPSS), noted that when addressing the issue of addiction, “we in no way ever want to contribute to the stigma addicted persons or families of addicted persons can experience.”
“Opioid addiction is a complex problem,” added State Trooper John Fanning. He advises parish workers never to touch used needles, adding that proper disposal should only be done by the police. Fr. White notes that when such items are left on parish or school property, it’s time to reach out to the local community for collaboration and assistance. Many communities host panel discussions and forums that have proven helpful to parishes and collaboratives. (See Pilot article on the Opioid Crisis Forum.)
What if a church worker or volunteer comes upon someone taking drugs on parish or school grounds? “Never approach them. No matter what, you should call the police,” Fanning stresses, adding that people addicted to opiates often behave erratically when confronted. But what if you only suspect a person is high on heroin? Knowing the symptoms unique to opiate use is key. These are tiny pupils, flushed skin, slow breathing, a tendency to nod off and being “on the nod” –unable to stand erect, almost doubling over as if touching one’s toes. “If you come upon someone high on opiates, you should always call the police. You never know if a person is going to overdose –and it can happen pretty quickly,” Fanning said.
If a parish wishes to go the extra mile, they may consider undergoing training to have Narcan™ (naloxone) on hand. Narcan is an opiate antidote. If delivered, it can reverse the effects of a potentially fatal overdose within 5 minutes. Fr. White suggests that parish schools consider adding Narcan to their first aid kits and health rooms. In addition, parishes, schools and social service agencies that host recovery meetings should have Narcan on the premises and ensure that someone trained in administering Narcan is present at the meeting.
Narcan does not require extensive training as it is simple to administer. Fr. White notes that his ministry, AARPSS, can help provide the 30-minute training, which includes recognizing the signs of opioid overdose and knowing how to administer the medication. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health also conducts training in Narcan administration.
Break the Code of Silence
Although this all is important, Fanning believes the best thing parishes can do is talk about the epidemic, to break the “code of silence” that surrounds heroin addiction, and to stop addiction before it begins. Together with John and Stephanie Greene, parents of 19-year-old Evan Greene who died of a heroin overdose, Fanning is a founding member of No First Time, a drug awareness program that travels to middle-and high-schools throughout Massachusetts to speak to the youth about the effects of drug use, bad decisions and their consequences. Any parish looking to engage their youth in a drug awareness program, be it in a school setting or youth group, can contact No First Time at www.evanfoundation.com.
Of course, there are other ways to break the silence of addiction. Some parishes hold prayer nights for families of addicts; others have invited Narcotics Anonymous groups into their parishes. “Whatever you do, parishes should try to think of some way to engage the people about this. This has affected everyone on one level or another. The more we speak about it, the more we can do something about it together,” Fanning said.