Faith communities urged to take lead in opioid fight

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Local faith communities have a valuable role to play in helping people struggling with addiction find help and hope for their futures.

That was the message of “Restoration and Recovery: Faith Communities and the Opioid Crisis,” a forum held at Lee University on Wednesday.

The event was sponsored by Lee’s Department of Behavioral & Social Sciences and local organization The Bridge. It featured three speakers who have seen the effects of addiction: Miss Tennessee 2017 Caty Davis, Lee professor Dr. Robert Fisher, and Brian Keplinger of South Cleveland Church of God.

Dr. Arlie Tagayuna, sociology professor at Lee, kicked things off by sharing some statistics about the widespread problem of addiction to opioids, a class of drug which includes common prescription painkillers. He urged faith communities to do what they can to support people battling addiction or in recovery.

“Indeed, talk is cheap,” Tagayuna said. “We need to act.”

Tagayuna said addiction is something people in churches and other faith-based groups have sometimes struggled to address, because addiction is often seen as a moral failure. Still, he said it is becoming increasingly important for them to recognize that addiction is more complicated.

Keplinger, a substance abuse counselor and director of South Cleveland Church of God’s Celebrate Recovery program, shared how he once found himself “in the pit of addiction.”

“It was my faith community that helped me get out of that pit,” Keplinger said.

He also addressed misconceptions about drug addiction. While he admitted it had been his choice to use drugs in the past, Keplinger stressed that he never chose to become an addict. Now many years into his recovery, he helps others find ways to overcome their addictions.

Comparing a statistic about the number of churches in Tennessee with a statistic about opioid addiction, Keplinger noted there are many faith communities which could help those battling addiction — if they choose to do so.

Keplinger said stereotypes about drug addicts can “get in the way” of people in faith communities helping. They may think addiction only affects people living hard lives out on the street. In reality, there are people who regularly attend church who secretly struggle.

“We must promote an atmosphere of change — and spread the message that those who are struggling are accepted,” Keplinger said.

Churches and other faith-based groups can help those facing addiction by supporting them and their families as they seek treatment. Even if a church does not host a group like Celebrate Recovery, it can offer “a place to belong.”

Fisher shared a scientific perspective on how opioid addiction affects a person’s brain. He spoke about various drugs and how they affect the human body.

He explained that while people can choose to take opioid drugs, the body actually produces its own “endogenous opioids” when confronted with pain and stress.

“The problem with opioids is that they actually affect the production of endogenous opioids,” Fisher said. “There are actual physical changes which take place.”

The professor urged his audience to learn more about how drugs affect those addicted to them. While someone can choose whether or not to start a drug habit, the habit can cause physical changes which make the drugs difficult to quit.

Davis said she knows that firsthand, because she grew up in a family which was “plagued by addiction.” As Miss Tennessee, she travels around the state sharing her story, hoping to prevent other families from having to experience the same thing.

She explained how addiction has affected three generations of her family, including her grandfather, father and half brother. All three have passed away, and Davis said their deaths were related to their addictions.

Seeing how addiction had affected her family, Davis earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Tennessee to “try to understand the disease of addiction better.”

Growing up, she admired her father, despite his addiction. However, Davis said she also thought addiction was a choice and that her achieving great things could help inspire her father to overcome it.

“I grew up very quickly and tried to help him,” Davis said.

She was driven to succeed, achieving great things in school along the way. However, she never told anyone about the stress her family’s battle with addiction caused her. Despite the happy façade, she had dealt with stresses like finding her father passed out from a drug overdose.

Davis said she really enjoys getting to speak to young people across the state, because her story may inspire children facing similar situations at home. She likes to stress that “Miss Tennessee has not always lived a fairytale life.”

“One in three households in Tennessee is affected by addiction in some way,” Davis said. “This is a real problem many children are facing.”

During a question-and-answer session after the presentations, the speakers stressed that faith communities have an important role to play in addressing the problem of opioid addiction. By helping those facing addiction, they are also helping build stronger families and communities.

Inset Quote:

“One in three households in Tennessee is affected by addiction in some way. This is a real problem many children are facing.” — Miss Tennessee Caty Davis

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