In Tennessee, Religious Community Helps Combat Opioid Epidemic
Wendell Taylor hurt his back in the midst of a rough divorce nearly a decade ago. His doctor gave him a prescription for painkillers.
Before long, the former West Tennessee concrete business owner needed the opioids to numb his physical and mental pain.
But in his recovery, Taylor needed God.
“God has led me to get involved with places where you can grow relationships with him and other people,” said Taylor, who marked one year of sobriety in December. “The last year has just really been a miracle.”
After his second round of treatment, Taylor, 50, sought out faith-based recovery programs. He moved to a Christian halfway home in Nashville, joined a 12-step program at a nearby church and found a job at a Christian nonprofit that hires recovering addicts.
The programs represent the ways religious groups are already helping combat addiction in Tennessee, but leaders in the recovery community say places of worship can do more, especially as the opioid epidemic persists.
One state agency is trying to harness the power of Tennessee’s religious community in the fight against addiction. In Tennessee, more than 50 percent of adults attend weekly religious services, according to Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.
About two years ago, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services launched a faith-based recovery network to spread the word about addiction, recovery and available services. It also encourages congregations to start their own support programs.
“Historically, institutions of faith have been at the forefront of every single major issue that we’ve had in our country,” said Monty Burks, the director of the department’s faith-based initiatives and special projects. “The key component in recovery is faith. So why not try to educate them and let them harness that number and that power and that belief and helping people in recovery.”
Shining a spotlight on recovery not only educates congregations about addiction and services, but it helps reduce stigma, Burks said. Education can combat misconceptions and change the narrative, including viewing addiction as a treatable disease and not a moral failing, he said.
Studies show that traumatic events in children’s lives, including divorce, abuse and parents who use drugs, are driving most compulsive use disorders, said Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Science at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. Children need safe families, homes and communities, he said.
“As a person of faith, it’s very clear to me that failed love is how this happens. And as a person of science, I can tell you we call it trauma, but it’s the same thing,” said Sumrok, who recently spent five years as pastor of a small Southern Baptist church in McKenzie, Tenn.
Religion and addiction can mix in detrimental ways, especially when addiction is conflated with immorality, Sumrok said. But more education, including sharing the neurological evidence about addiction as a disease and the role trauma plays, can help refute that poisonous message, he said. More resources are available to congregations today than there were just a decade ago, said Sumrok, pointing to federal and state faith-based initiatives.
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