After hundreds of lethal drug overdoses in British Columbia in the last year, the Archbishop of Vancouver has said Catholics must act to help those addicted to opioids and other drugs.
The “scourge” of drug overdoses is a chance for Catholics “to see the face of Jesus in those who suffer and are tragically claimed by lethal drug overdoses,” Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver said in a Feb. 16 letter to the faithful of his archdiocese.
The archbishop invited the Catholic Church in Vancouver to reach out to suffering men, women and young people. He said the Church must imitate Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.”
“In 2017 Vancouver, Jesus would also identify himself with those afflicted by mental illness and addiction,” he said. “As His disciples, we are called to do likewise.”
Over 900 people in British Columbia died from lethal drug overdoses, especially from fentanyl and other opioids. The number of deaths is more than double that from homicides and traffic accidents combined.
“This health emergency is widespread, cutting across every segment of society, devastating families and communities. It is claiming the lives of people on the street and those struggling with mental illness and trauma. It is killing our youth, students, workers, and elderly,” Archbishop Miller said. “Sadly, many of those of those who survive suffer brain damage and from other long-term consequences.”
Catholic hospitals are particularly affected. St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver alone treated 42 overdoses between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The archbishop acknowledged the impact treating these cases have on medical center staff and personnel.
“The toll is especially brutal on first responders who find themselves physically and mentally exhausted by their exceptionally difficult job,” he said.
Archbishop Miller cited three contributions to the spike in drug abuse: the over-prescription of opioids, social isolation and mental illness.
North American prescription rates for opioids are six times higher than in Europe.
“Once addicted, a lifelong struggle to break the habit begins,” the archbishop said, calling for better ways to counter disproportionate use of opioids and better treatment for acute and chronic pain.
Over half of those who seek help from drug addiction suffer from mental disorders, while at least 20 percent of Canadians have some form of mental illness.
“People who suffer from mental illness need our help, our friendship, our outreach, our resources and our prayer,” said Archbishop Miller, adding that people have little control over diseases like substance dependence and addiction.
The archbishop cited Pope Francis’ words against treating drug addicts like “mere objects or broken machines.” Rather, they must be “valued and appreciated in his or her dignity in order to enable them to be healed” to help them avoid becoming victims of a “throwaway culture.”
“Imitating Christ the Healer, the Church is obliged to bring His compassion to everyone in pain, whether physical, emotional or spiritual,” Archbishop Miller said.
He suggested Catholics should invite those struggling with mental illness and addiction to be “fully integrated” into parish and school communities.
“Ask yourselves: do you include them and make them feel welcome, or do you shun them?” he asked. “Are you open to residential housing or community health centers in your own neighborhood?”
The archbishop noted the link between substance addiction and suicide in young people. He stressed the need for better psychiatric and psychological support for high risk and vulnerable age groups.
“Let us continue to reach beyond our pews and parish organizations, recognizing the face of Christ in the marginalized, the lonely, the homeless, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, and the addicted,” he said.
Those who are socially isolated are more likely to engage in substance abuse, which furthers their isolation.
“More Canadians now live alone than at any other time in history,” the archbishop said, blaming excessive individualism, a culture of instant gratification, as well as poverty, economic uncertainty and family disintegration.
“Drug use and abuse appeal to those seeking to escape suffering, loneliness and isolation,” he said, noting that communities that are welcoming and close-knit tend to suffer lower levels of substance abuse and other social problems.
To respond to drug addiction and abuse, the archbishop recommended advocacy for action from elected officials and bodies that regulate opioids, efforts to improve prescription practices and pain management, better education in schools, financial support for organizations that can respond to the problem, and parish support services for recovery methods like 12-step programs.