DALLAS — The American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), together with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, provided a free specialized training in opioid crisis response Wednesday, called “The Opioid Crisis: Creating an Effective Church and Community Collaboration and Resolution Response,” before the official start of its 2018 Mega National Christian Counseling Conference in Dallas. Filling the crowd were dozens of mental health and health care professionals, teachers, pastors and students.
Dr. Dav id Jenkins, Psy.D., Director of Liberty University’s M.A. in Addiction Counseling program, opened the training with sobering statistics about the reality of the opioid epidemic and called the opioid crisis “a public health epidemic that is ravaging our nation.” America saw over 72,000 overdose deaths last year, with nearly 50,000 (almost 70 percent) of those being opioid overdoses. “If you sit with this (data) long enough it’ll break your heart,” he reflected, “and maybe that’s what has to happen” for the church to wake up to the glaring need to combat the crisis.
Jenkins was quick to list ways the church can help, from pastors working to inform their congregations about the mind, body and spirit issues involved in addiction, to working to destigmatize addiction in the church, to promoting education, prevention and treatment resources in the community. The practical ways churches can get involved, Jenkins said, aren’t just based on “biblical evidence” but are “backed up by the behavioral science.”
Presenters explained the myriad reasons why people use drugs, the process of becoming addicted as well as how to recognize signs of drug abuse and addiction. Understanding how patients experience pain and how doctors choose to manage pain is also important, especially as alternative forms of pain management are being explored to reduce opioid prescription.
Dr. Linda Mintle, Chair of the Division of Behavioral Health at the Liberty University School of Osteopathic Medicine, presented multiple ideas for others methods of pain treatment including mind-body treatments, NSAIDS, cognitive-behavioral regulation, mindfulness, relaxation techniques, muscle therapy and, surprisingly, the use of acetaminophen and ibuprofen, which have been shown to be just as effective at treating pain as opioids.
“Our culture doesn’t have a philosophy of suffering anymore, we just want to opt out of pain and discomfort — people want pills, not work. Our goal isn’t to eliminate the pain, but to reduce it, to help the person function and flourish better. We have the hope of a day when there will be no more pain, no more suffering or addiction, but in the meantime, we have to walk with people.”
The need for the church to work on destigmatizing addiction was highlighted by several on the panel, with both Dr. Steven Taylor, CMO of the Behavioral Health Division at Pathway Healthcare, and Dr. Brett Roth, M.D., Clinical Professor of Emergency Medicine, repeatedly reminding the audience that decades of research proves that addiction is a disease, not a “moral failing.” The church should not be angry with or judge addicts, but instead “double-down on loving” them.
A man in the audience, describing himself as “just a husband and a dad,” mentioned that he has attended a large Dallas-area church for 20 years and has never heard the church talk about addiction or opioids. Choking back tears and thinking of parents of addicts, he said: “you know their hearts are broken.”
Ben O’Dell, Program Specialist at the HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives, focused on the underlying positive aspects of faith-based involvement in the fight against the opioid crisis. He said faith communities value the inherent dignity of each person and approach addicts from a position of “what happened to you that caused these addictive behaviors” instead of just asking “what’s wrong with you?” While faith communities have a relational heart, they can improve their “understanding of the pain that people experience.”
In presenting its Opioid Epidemic Practical Toolkit, HHS Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives Director Shannon Royce remarked that her office has the “privilege of being the bridge between the faith community and the Ph.D.s, researchers and M.D.s at HHS who develop these resources and policies and we also get to help the Ph.D.s, researchers and M.D.s at HHS understand the unique value of faith and community partners.”
Scott Olson, CEO of Pathway Healthcare, a national provider of outpatient addiction treatment, echoed Royce’s sentiments, saying “‘the church is the perfect partner for us” in the fight against opioids and other addictions as “it’s still the best distribution and social system in the world.”
The American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) is the world’s largest and most diverse association of Christian counseling professionals. The AACC’s mission is to equip the entire community of care, including licensed professionals, pastors and lay caregivers, with biblical truth and psychosocial insights so they can minister to hurting persons and help them move to personal wholeness, interpersonal competence and mental stability. The AACC accomplishes this mission through its widely attended events, its educational programs and materials available via Light University and its other publications.