July 21, 2021
Provisional data point to a significant increase in overdose deaths in the United States coinciding with the pandemic. As an article in the Deseret News summarizes: “Drug overdose deaths climbed dramatically in 2020, up nearly 30% to more than 93,000 from the 72,000 in 2019.”
This tragic development inevitably raises the question of what can be done to change the trend. Drugs that can reverse or block the effect of opioids are an important factor. Improving prescription practices is also important.
As with other vital health needs, religious practice and religious groups can also play an important role.
As a Brazilian study noted, religious practice is associated with a lower risk of using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. In fact, a review of 185 studies determined that “84% found that faith reduced the risks of drug abuse.”
As researcher Brian Grim has explained:
Overwhelmingly, research shows that youth who are spiritually active, participate in a faith community, and invest in a prayerful relationship with their God are less likely to use or abuse drugs and alcohol. By contrast, teens who do not consider religious belief important are almost three times more likely to smoke, five times more likely to binge on alcohol, and almost eight times more likely to use marijuana compared with the teens who strongly appreciated the significance of religion in their daily lives. And compared with the teens who attended religious services at least weekly, the teens who never attended services were twice more likely to drink, over twice more likely to smoke, over three times more likely to use marijuana or binge on alcohol, and four times more likely to use illicit drugs.
Teens who attend religious services weekly are less likely to smoke, drink, use marijuana or other illicit drugs (e.g., LSD, cocaine, and heroin) than those who attend religious services less frequently. Further, religious practice among teens discourages them from taking highly dangerous drugs. For example, people who attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were 33% less likely to use illegal drugs.
The same benefits extend to adults. A 2016 study concluded: “High religiosity was associated with lifetime alcohol abstention and was found to be protective against hazardous drinking and drug use among” women.
When individuals have engaged in substance abuse, religion can be a powerful help in recovery. The most well-known addiction recovery program is Alcoholics Anonymous, which explicitly includes reliance on God in its steps for recovery.
One study found that engaging in religious practices, or “religious coping,” was associated with less opioid use and more participation in 12-step recovery programs. A survey of participants in Teen Challenge, a faith-based residential treatment center, found that the most important factor in maintaining sobriety a year after treatment was “staying connected to God” (mentioned by 62% of those surveyed).
Brian and Melissa Grim’s research found “that 73% of substance abuse recovery programs in the USA include a spirituality-based element, as embodied in the 12-step programs and fellowships, the majority of which emphasize reliance on God or a Higher Power to stay sober.”
They point out: “The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that the individuals who had received both professional treatment and attended spirituality-based support programs like A.A. or N.A. were far more likely to stay sober than if they had received professional treatment alone.”
The Grims conclude: “Addicts with a faith or spirituality heal faster.”
Churches often provide spaces for recovery groups to meet, sponsor groups, and provide volunteers to help.
The protection offered by religion and religious practice against drug abuse and addiction is so strong that Grim argues “the decline in religious affiliation presents a growing national health concern.”
States have wisely promoted the use of reversal drugs to counteract overdoses. While governments cannot encourage religious participation in the same way, policymakers would be wise to acknowledge its protective role and ensure religious groups are protected in the expression of their beliefs, so that they have the space to pursue their critical work on substance abuse prevention and recovery.
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