The 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that more than 46 million people aged 12 and older met the criteria for substance use disorder. Of those, roughly 94% did not receive any specialized treatment during the year before the survey.
What does this disturbing statistic mean for ecclesiastical leaders? Your chances of having at least one person in your flock who suffers from an SUD or other addiction – or knows someone who does – are high. With that in mind, this article touches on several key ways a spiritual advisor, priest, or pastor can use their position and influence to identify, assist, and advocate for those who struggle with substance abuse.
As most addictions thrive in secrecy, finding the people in your congregation who need help won’t be easy. Substance abuse symptoms share many similarities with mental health issues, as the two often co-occur, so you’ll need to approach your parishioner with an open mind and heart. Try not to diagnose them but instead listen and learn.
The following represent some of the physical and mental indicators of possible substance abuse:
1. Drastic Mood Changes, Irritability – While also signs of bipolar disorder and ADHD, sudden and dramatic mood changes can occur because of drug and alcohol use. These substances overstimulate the brain’s reward centers and will, over time, weaken the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for vital executive functions like impulse control, emotional regulation, attention, and planning. Is a person in your group who’s usually polite flying off the handle more often than not? An increasingly shorter fuse could mean that he’s in severe mental distress, and it’s imperative that you step in to find out what’s going on.
2. Secretiveness, Dishonesty – Substance abusers usually resort to secrecy or outright lying because they want to hide their disease from the world or feel they can handle it alone. Either way, the results of that behavior aren’t good. Has someone been coming in regularly for spiritual counseling but missed their last few appointments? Or do you feel something isn’t right when someone tells you they’re doing great? Follow those instincts and try to find out more.
3. Poor Health – Bloodshot eyes, dilated or constricted pupils, sudden weight changes, rotting teeth, shortness of breath, chronic fatigue, trembling, sweating, slurred or rapid speech – any of these factors, especially if they’re happening consistently, are emergency signals that something in the body is failing. Be on the lookout for these disease symptoms, as they can result from substance abuse.
4. Irresponsibility, Broken Relationships – Is your parishioner always late to pick up their child from Bible School, or sometimes even a no-show? Does a couple who initially seemed very loving now look like they are constantly on edge and unhappy? When someone is in the throes of addiction, they only care about where they will get their next fix. Marriage relationships, family and work responsibilities, and even hobbies and leisure activities fall by the wayside as the person becomes solely focused on his drug use.
5. Apathy, Despondency – It’s easy to feel hopeless in addiction, so depression and suicide ideation are often regular companions of those who struggle with substance abuse. Look for congregants who no longer enjoy activities they once loved, act despondent, or don’t seem to care about the consequences of their actions.
As a church leader, you are uniquely positioned to listen without judgment, offer counsel, and direct your parishioners to addiction recovery resources available in the community.
“Your job isn’t to try and fix their situation,” said Preston Dixon, COO at Renaissance Ranch, an all-male faith-based recovery program near Salt Lake City, Utah. “Rather, you have the opportunity to put your arms around them and help them experience Christ’s love through your example of patience, understanding, and forgiveness.”
Jesus Christ was our ultimate example of listening to and loving people unconditionally, regardless of their actions. Likewise, as His representatives, you can create a safe space where a person with an SUD can talk freely about their issues and gain hope and encouragement for the future. You can also use the time to share scriptures and pray together for strength.
It’s critical to remember that a person with substance use disorder will most often need specialized help from licensed therapists, counselors, and other health professionals, in addition to the spiritual support you’re giving them. Organizations, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), local Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous groups, and nearby faith-based treatment centers, can provide that necessary assistance.
Churches can host AA and NA meetings or create their own 12-Step classes, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Addiction Recovery Program. They also can provide after-school programs to keep kids off the streets, job placement and housing support, and references to a network of area Christian-based rehabilitation centers.
The Health and Human Services department offers a wealth of resources, including practical toolkits, for faith leaders through its Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also known as The Partnership Center. Each year, the HHS also grants millions of dollars in funding for local faith-based initiatives.
Be part of the solution today. You’ll never know how much of a difference one loving pastor and congregation can make in the life of an addict until you try.