Oklahoma City — State officials are partnering with faith leaders to spread education about the opioid crisis, and to break down stigma surrounding drug addiction and treatment.
The Rev. Shannon Fleck, executive director of Oklahoma Conference of Churches (OCC), said the ecumenical organization recently launched a partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMHSAS) to spread education through Oklahoma faith communities on the risks of opioid misuse.
“The opioid crisis is alive and well in the state of Oklahoma, and has really touched and affected so many lives,” Fleck said, “and we want to work with faith communities to educate people and address this issue.”
Fleck said ODMHSAS reached out to OCC in January to partner for “opioid awareness work within faith communities, providing tangible, direct resources so faith communities can identify potential opioid issues and respond appropriately and in a healthy way with their people.”
OCC has been refining an existing ODMHSAS curriculum on opioid abuse prevention and response, Fleck said, and OCC currently is seeking congregations across the state that would be interested in using the resource to educate their members.
While addiction often isn’t treated as a theological issue, Fleck said “protecting the health and welfare of all people is one of the biggest theological issues there is,” and churches play a role in responding to the opioid crisis.
“Especially in Oklahoma, faith communities are able to reach a lot of people in ways other organizations can’t,” Fleck said, “and agencies working to save lives in Oklahoma recognize the value of that.”
Jessica Hawkins, ODMHSAS senior prevention director, said OCC expands the department’s reach to prevent opioid misuse and to help people struggling with addiction.
“The Oklahoma Conference of Churches reaches many Oklahomans and was the perfect outlet for a partnership of this type,” Hawkins said. “Faith-based organizations can make a real difference in their communities, and equip people with information and resources, which is certainly the goal here.”
That education aims to overcome Oklahoma’s most common cause of overdose deaths. In 2016, 54 percent of all overdose deaths in Oklahoma involved an opioid, according to ODMHSAS data.
“Opioid addiction is a serious crisis in Oklahoma,” Hawkins said. “The Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services has partnered with many community sectors, including business, health care, public education, higher education, civic groups and tribal organizations.
“The more public education and awareness we can bring to the state about preventing opioid harm, including overdose and addiction, the better,” Hawkins said. “We are making headway, but more work needs to be done.”
Fleck said she wants the new partnership to help facilitate that work, by connecting faith-based resources with secular resources in the community. “Interfaith efforts are a bedrock of this work,” Fleck said, and the partnership is open to all faith communities, and all faiths, whether they are OCC members or not.
A loving approach
Whatever denomination or congregation is involved, the work of breaking down the stigma around addiction and treatment involves creating a faith atmosphere of love and compassion, said the Rev. Stephen Bird, pastor at Epiphany of the Lord Catholic Church in Oklahoma City.
“Whether it’s alcoholism, mental illness or drug abuse, it seems the church always has to take a loving approach to those who are having the problems, and deal with it with understanding and compassion,” Bird said. “The value of the person has to be emphasized.”
Bird said churches have had to moderate their approach to addiction and treatment over the years, in similar ways to the social and faith-based responses to other difficult issues, such as suicide.
“In the past, when a person committed suicide, they often wouldn’t be allowed a Christian funeral, but we understand suicide differently now, as flowing out of mental illness,” Bird said. “So, just as we try to show compassion and understanding if the person is thinking of committing suicide, we always need to show that love and understanding for other people as well, whatever their circumstances are. Obviously, we would hope whatever the issue is, whether it’s alcoholism, drug addiction or mental illness, we would encourage the person to get the help they need.”
A positive influence
Gail Box, of Enid, said she hopes the new OCC-ODMHSAS partnership will help break down stigma around addiction and treatment, and create a supportive environment for people like her son, Austin.
Box is well-known in Oklahoma for her work in opioid abuse prevention advocacy, motivated daily by Austin’s untimely death from a prescription pain medication overdose on May 19, 2011.
Austin, then a football player at University of Oklahoma, had suffered a long series of sports-related injuries that eventually led to abusing prescription pain medication. Box said churches can play an important role in breaking down barriers to others who struggle with the same fight that claimed her son.
“I think there’s so much shame that surrounds addiction,” Box said, “and I think we need to be more open, especially in our churches, to an understanding of addiction — that it doesn’t matter if you’re low socio-economic, if you go to church, if you have a strong faith or don’t — addiction will take anyone.”
Box said some people may overcome the stigma attached to addiction if they hear from their pastor it is “a brain disease and not a moral failing.”
“I think if people hear it through some type of education through the church, then they know the congregation is behind them,” Box said. “A church isn’t a building. It is the people within, and if the people in the church are understanding, it is a lot easier to come forward and share whatever pain it is you’re going through.”
That supportive environment, particularly in a person’s faith community, can go a long way toward getting people to help, Box said.
“It is so important to have supportive people around you,” Box said. “When you have the opportunity to surround yourself with people who will have a positive influence and actually lend a helping hand with what is going on in your life, then you are more apt to seek help.”
Overcoming stigma from the pulpit
Wade Burleson, pastor at Emmanuel Enid, said “without a doubt,” stigma still holds some people back from getting the help they need with opioid addiction.
“On an average Sunday, there’s going to be probably dozens of people who listen to me speak who are silently and secretly struggling with some kind of prescription medication addiction,” Burleson said.
He said it takes a concerted effort from faith leaders to help people struggling with addiction to overcome that fear of rejection.
“That’s where it’s incumbent upon pastors to create a culture of acceptance,” Burleson said, “and that is definitely what we are trying to do at Emmanuel, where we’re saying if you’re addicted, you’re welcome — we want to love you, accept you and help you, not push you away.”
Emmanuel offers a weekly Celebrate Recovery support group. But, beyond that, Burleson said it involves creating a congregation-wide culture of love and support.
“We encourage people all the time to talk about it, to not be ashamed, to not hide it, in order to get help,” he said.
He encouraged other congregations, if they haven’t already, to foster education, open conversation and support around the issue of opioid addiction.
“We’ll do our part, and I would encourage other churches to do their part,” Burleson said, “to create that culture of acceptance and to create that environment where people are free to talk about their struggles.”