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Former Drug Addict Shares How Churches Can Better Minister To Those Struggling With Substance Abuse, Mental Health

( [email protected] ) Oct 09, 2015 05:19 PM EDT
As part of Saddleback Church's powerful, three-day conference, "The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church," Pastor Rick Warren joined Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy onstage to discuss how the church can best respond to those dealing with drug addiction and change public perception of both addiction and mental illness.
Michael Botticelli Getty Images

As part of Saddleback Church's powerful three-day conference, "The Gathering on Mental Health and the Church," Pastor Rick Warren joined Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy onstage to discuss how the church can best respond to those dealing with drug addiction and change public perception of both addiction and mental illness.

"When we talk about mental health, we specifically have to talk about some vulnerable groups," Pastor Warren said before introducing Botticelli. "You can't talk about veterans returning with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without talking about mental health. You can't talk about addictions and co-dependences without mental health, you can't talk about the homeless without mental health."

In beginning his comments, Botticelli noted that faith communities have played a critical role for many years in preventing substance use, treating substance use, and sustaining people in recovery.

"They've long provided spiritual guidance, social and emotional assistance for people struggling with this disorder. [The Church] often serves as first responders for people with substance disorders," he said, revealing that in the past, he struggled with drug addiction and eventually recovered thanks to the help of a local church.

"While we all know this is a disease that we can study and look at brain scans, for me, I was spiritually bankrupt. It was my pastor, and my congregation, that supported my healing process," he said.

Every year, more Americans die from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle fatalities, Botticelli said.

"We are losing too many of our people," he continued, explaining that many of these deaths are caused by prescription drugs and heroin. It's important to treat substance abuse like a disease -- not a moral failure, and sustain people in long-term recovery.

"All of these efforts are not enough unless we change the way we think about people with addiction," Botticelli emphasized, arguing that many of those who struggle with drug use are unable to recover because they are hidden in the shadows of shame and denial. The way many people talk about those with substance use disorders and mental health disorders can also reinforce negative stereotypes, affecting their recovery process.

"Faith leaders can play a vital role in this effort," he said. "You inspire people daily and encourage them to seek help and care for their family and friends. The messages you can tell change the misperceptions and stereotypes people have about people with these disorders. You can also reveal the true consequences of drug use that are sometimes ignored. Fundamentally, by putting faces and voices to this disease and the promise of recovery, we can lift the curtain of shame and denial that continue to keep too many people with substance use disorders hidden and without access to lifesaving treatment."

Pastor Warren reiterated that the church is often on the frontline when it comes to helping those with drug addiction and mental illness: "If you don't think that when someone is in a crisis they call the church, I invite you to become a receptionist for eight hours on one day," he said. "You will become a believer very quickly, because when they're in pain they don't call an attorney or accountant. They often will call someone they've trusted in weddings, funerals, marrying and burying and all the stages of life. Churches often end up being triage."

To watch archived footage of the event or for more information, visit http://www.mentalhealthandthechurch.com.