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Finding a 'spiritual solution' in midst of opioid epidemic

Spiritual leaders can use their pulpits to educate their congregations on the disease of addiction and embrace those who are suffering.

That message is part of Tuesday's daylong seminar in the Catholic Newman Center serving the University at Buffalo's North Campus where some 30 members of the clergy and counselors have come for guidance on how to help those in the midst of the opioid epidemic that continues to take a heavy toll here and across the country.

So far this year, there have been 89 confirmed or suspected fatal opioid overdoses in Erie County. Last year, there were 284 confirmed deaths plus 10 suspected fatalities for which toxicology test results are still pending.

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First responders have found success with Narcan, an opiate antidote that has saved countless lives. But those same responders say they are sometimes called to the same locations again to revive the same individual.

There are other frustrations too.

A program opening the doors of area police stations to connect drug-addicted individuals with volunteer "angels" who will sit with them until they are placed in treatment has not attracted large numbers. The same is true of an Addiction Hotline, which, like the angel program, started last summer.

But there is also a "spiritual solution," according to organizers of Tuesday's seminar, sponsored by the Lutheran Church Extension Society.

Jan Hubbard

The organizers outlined what can be done.

"There's a loss in relationships, a loss in the community, in schools, at work, and there's a loss in freedom for those who are addicted because their whole lives revolve around getting their substance," said Jan Hubbard, who serves as a Methodist minister in Hamburg and as a licensed social worker.

"Giving the gift of our presence and removing the stigma of addiction offers support," Hubbard said. "We are addressing grief issues for families who have lost children and to people struggling with addiction who are grieving over the loss of who they were before they got addicted."

Establishing support groups, she and other speakers said, can provide the spiritual help needed in gaining "the gift of recovery."

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Offering insight into why spirituality is significant in recovery, clinical mental health counselor Penny Mckenna said that when alcoholics and drug addicts seek sobriety, they require something to fill the "hole" in their psyche.

"The thing is the substance has been their best friend and companion, so you have to have something else you can depend on and that would be spirituality," said Mckenna, explaining that  those who become addicted often come from dysfunctional and fractured backgrounds and  feel separated from others. "It creates a hole in their soul and personality. They think they are different, somehow unworthy."

Mckenna spoke of God in filling the void, but she added that those who do not believe in a Supreme Being can also seek out spirituality.

"When people begin to develop a spiritual life through counseling and spiritual support, they begin to lose that sense of being alone," said Mckenna, who works at the Samaritan Counseling Center,  the seminar's main organizer.

Avi Israel, who shared the story of how his son Michael committed suicide after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers while being treated for Crohn's disease, said he supports whatever works to get people off opiates.

"Whether it is medication or spirituality, if it works, it is good because you can't fix a person when they are dead," Israel said.

Tina M. Harding, a faith based coach and counselor from Gasport who is associated with the Wesleyan Church, said the spiritual approach allows people to share their pain, rather than keeping it bottled up inside.

"When a tragedy happens, the tendency is to turn inward rather than outward," Harding said. "When you turn outward, that's where healing happens. There is a connection in knowing you are not alone."


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