Yesterday a colleague died. We had previously worked in the same organization and received national awards together. 

I found out on Facebook, where I hear of similar deaths several times a month. The news came after a conversation I had with a mentor about the recent death of one of her close colleagues. 

We both work in the field of addiction recovery and have seen too many deaths related to overdose and suicide among colleagues, family members, friends and the people we admire. I have worked in this space for nearly a decade and am also in long-term recovery. 

I have stood at more hospital beds and funerals as a person in recovery than I ever did as the pastor of an aging church.  

 The questions my mentor and I ask each other are the whispered kind. We both believe that everyone, whether they use drugs now, have in the past or never at all, is deserving of respect and dignity. We believe quality of life, more than days in a row sober, is the most critical metric. 

But is what we are doing working? Are we actually accomplishing well-being?  

It makes sense that Americans are conflicted about how we are responding to substance use because professionals are conflicted, too. Drugs are not the same as they were—fentanyl is endemic and cannabis products now contain THC concentrations up to 80%, which is far beyond the 5-7% they contained 20 years ago. 

Even in recovery, rates of suicide for those with a diagnosis of an alcohol or substance use disorder are ten to fourteen times greater than that of the general population. 

Despite a decrease in opioid prescriptions since 2012, opioid-related deaths accounted for 1 in every 22 deaths in the US in 2021. The media calls these “deaths of despair.” But despair is not only an individual factor. It is also a social and communal factor. 

I use two conceptual maps of factors that provide protection when discussing recovery: the “Forty Developmental Assets” map and the “Recovery Capital” map. Both describe external and internal assets such as family support, caring neighborhoods, community involvement, engagement in creative activities, achievement motivation, integrity, peaceful conflict resolution and an inner sense of purpose. 

These assets are helpful when thinking about substance use prevention and point us all to an internal map of what it means to live a thriving life.  

Recovery takes a community- mutual aid, harm reduction, and recovery happen in groups. Those who believe willpower is all that is needed for recovery expect superhuman reactions to the experience of living with and among people actively using one’s drug of choice. 

They only want individual blame instead of community answers. The answer can be as simple as supporting the recovery homes in your neighborhood.  

 There are many challenges in the field of substance use prevention, treatment and recovery. There aren’t enough treatment beds. The criminal justice system is the largest referral source for addiction treatment, which doesn’t happen with other health conditions. 

If a person can even get into a specialty treatment center, many such facilities don’t follow evidence-based standards, particularly for opioid use disorders. 

Society spends a lot of time and energy on failed strategies and doesn’t invest in interventions we know will work. The stigma around addiction is getting worse among providers. 

Here are my asks for people of good faith who are interested in advancing the cause of healthy recovery:

First, change your language. Remove the word “abuse” from your vocabulary when talking about substance use, misuse or addiction. Most people who have a substance use disorder also have a history of being abused. 

Our word choices impact how we think about others. The Recovery Research Institute has a great addiction dictionary that can assist communities in talking about substance use. 

Second, listen. Many national leaders in this conversation are already doing the good work. Faith in Harm Reduction, The Olive Branch Ministry in North Carolina, and Thrive Family Recovery Resources are all non-profits willing to listen to and answer their community needs. 

Each of these groups speaks to the need to value human dignity and love above the desire to control behavior and above our own fears. Grow more comfortable learning and talking about substance use. 

 Third, find your role. Carry naloxone. Organize a meal train for the family who sent their father or daughter to treatment. 

Find opportunities to support harm reduction and recovery in your community. In recovery, we learn that everyone gets better together. 

This is also true outside recovery. 

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