From T. R. Williams:
Every generation hopes their children’s happiness and success will surpass their own. For most of recorded history new generations have had at least more time to make that happen: life expectancy has doubled over the last 150 years.
Average life expectancy in the U.S. climbed steadily until an influenza epidemic in 1962 and 1963, then dropped again in 1993 at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Reports now show that average life expectancy declined in 2015 and 2016, due to a 21 percent increase in the drug overdose death rate: 52,404 in 2015 and 63,632 in 2016.
“It’s even worse than it looks,” a recent article quotes Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University. Given that research has shown official figures could be undercounting the true number of opioid deaths by 20 percent or more, “we could easily be at fifty thousand opioid deaths last year,” Humphreys added. “This means that even if you ignored deaths from all other drugs, the opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.”
This is not happening in other nations. We are THE market for makers of opioid painkillers like Lorcet, Lortab, Vicodin, Dilaudid, OxyContin and Percoset, consuming 98% of all they produce. Even administered for legitimate pain, they hold the danger of addiction if taken more than a few days.
Amateur pharmacists are now selling painkillers they make with presses that can turn out as many as 30,000 pills an hour. These often contain Fentanyl, a powerful opioid used as part of anesthesia to prevent pain after surgery. The “correct” dosage per pill is the size of two grains of sand, but you can imagine how hard that is to control. Two famous names associated with Fentanyl come to mind immediately: Michael Jackson and Prince.
Remember that opioids are relatively new; we still have other drugs, including alcohol, that were already on the scene. Opioids can lead to heroin, a stronger, cheaper opioid that is gaining popularity in unlikely places – Midwest farms, Southern communities, Northeastern hamlets. People are dying across our nation, in our state, in our county.
Substance use disorders (no matter what the substance) are not moral failings, but “our biggest health problem,” said Dr. Steven Loyd, Medical Director for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS). Dr. Loyd addressed pastors and other church leaders at a program sponsored by the Lawrence County Substance Abuse Coalition and the Faith-Based Recovery Coalition that developed under its umbrella.
Substance use disorders are a medical issue because their explanation lies in the anatomy of the brain, he said. The hypothalamus is an endorphin-seeking center designed to drive us (and other living things) to seek pleasures including sleep, food, and sex in order to keep us and our species alive.
Addictions “highjack” that part of the brain, making us think we will die without whatever substance we crave. Opioids, he said, “produce cravings ten times stronger than hunger or thirst.” This can happen to anyone at any age.
The frontal cortex of the brain provides judgement, insight, and self-control, but it is damaged by drug use. The hypothalamus and frontal cortex are not even connected until women reach 23 years old and men, 25, which explains a lot of bad choices.
“This connection is arrested at the time of first drug use,” Dr. Loyd added, which explains why some continue to make bad choices far into adulthood. It takes two years without drug use for the frontal cortex to fully heal.
Why do pastors and church leaders need to know this?
“Church is the largest demographic in our state,” said Dr. Monty Burks, Director of Faith-Based Initiatives for TDMHSAS. “Churches can create change in our communities, develop local solutions.”
Almost 300 across the state have become Certified Recovery Congregations, including ten in Lawrence County: Busby Church of God, Choates Creek Methodist, Christian Fellowship Church, Coleman Memorial Methodist, Gum Springs Baptist, Leoma Baptist, Mars Hill Baptist, New Prospect Baptist, Summertown-Henryville Methodist, and United Church.
Leaders in these churches agree to receive training and information that will help support people in recovery. United Church pastor David Morgan is chairman of the Lawrence County Faith-Based Recovery Coalition; his church recently sponsored a banquet for law enforcement to thank them for their service and acknowledge the faith community’s role in recovery and prevention efforts.
Plans are being made for more Faith Based forums to educate clergy on prevention and recovery, said LCSAC Director Jenny Golden. At the same time, LCSAC and the Faith-Based Recovery Coalition are assessing gaps in this community to see how churches and other partners can address them. Examples could be a lack of drug-free activities for teens, or the stigma related to substance use disorders.
Dr. Loyd described his own change of heart related to “drug-addicted mommies” and his subsequent development of a specialized clinic for them in Gray, Tennessee.
One young pregnant woman, tattooed, pierced and scarred by what appeared to be cigarette burns, described a journey to him that included being raped by her own father from the age of four. “These are things my Sunday School class doesn’t want to know,” he said. “We have to understand what those people have been through and meet them where they are.”