September is National Recovery Month, and new research details the importance of faith-based programs and church communities in recovering from alcohol and substance abuse. In their study, published in the Journal of Religion and Health, the father-daughter team of Brian Grim and Melissa Grim note that a majority of treatment programs include a spiritual component and that faith-based recovery groups save the U.S. economy more than $300 billion annually. As a result, they warn, the downward trend in religious affiliation could hamper wellness for substance abusers in the future.
The study, titled “Belief, Behavior, and Belonging: How Faith Is Indispensable in Preventing and Recovering From Substance Abuse,” is part of ongoing research from Faith Counts, a multi-faith non-profit organization that promotes the value of religion and spirituality. The study concludes that faith is key to long-term recovery as well as to reducing the risk of addiction in the first place.
Religion Is Part of Most Treatment Programs
Researchers found that 73 percent of America’s addiction treatment programs—including 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)—contain “a spirituality-based element,” whether a reference to God or a higher power. An estimated 130,000 congregations of all faiths provide some type of recovery assistance, such as Teen Challenge, AA, or Celebrate Recovery.
According to Grim, this clearly contradicts the assumption that religion is irrelevant to societal woes. “While in the latest Gallup survey only 46 percent of Americans think that religion can answer today’s problems,” he says, “the reality is that religion provides answers for one of today’s biggest problems—addiction.”
About 20 million Americans suffer with a substance abuse disorder at any given time, and the annual death toll from alcohol and drug-related causes is 158,000. (For the purposes of this study, the ongoing opioid crisis is excluded. Grim says it “presents a different and unprecedented set of challenges that require a unique approach to treatment.”)
Religion also “protects” people from engaging in harmful habits to begin with, research shows. More than 80 percent of studies reveal that faith reduces the risks of both alcohol abuse and drug abuse. Among young people, religious teenagers are three times less likely to binge drink and four times less likely to use illegal drugs than their non-religious peers. “Teens themselves tend to cite their peers’ religious and spiritual inclinations as reasons that discourage their peers from drinking and taking drugs,” Grim writes.
“Religious beliefs, practices, and ministries not only provide succor and solace to those in need,” concludes Faith Counts, but “they provide tangible, valuable resources that can help prevent and address substance abuse.”
Interestingly, up to 82 percent of substance abusers who experience a “spiritual awakening” during treatment and recovery are completely clean at the one-year mark. That compares to just 55 percent of substance abusers who don’t experience a spiritual awakening during the process.
Church Volunteer Groups Save U.S. Taxpayers Billions
The Grims estimate that faith-based recovery groups, usually run by volunteers, save America’s economy $316.6 billion every year—at zero cost to taxpayers. In terms of lives saved, the estimate is about 20,000 annually.
Byron R. Johnson, a professor and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, says, “Faith-based organizations work tirelessly to address difficult social problems like homelessness, crime, and prisoner re-entry,” yet they “rarely receive recognition for their positive and valuable contributions.”
Medical intervention is often critical for substance abusers, the study notes, yet faith organizations are “uniquely capable of providing the ‘wrap-around’ care and community necessary for long-term recovery.” Kerry Troup with Faith Counts emphasizes that these findings provide “another positive proof point of the tremendous social good that individuals and organizations of faith provide for society.”
Declining Religiosity Could Lead to “national health concern”
Because faith-based groups play such an important role in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, experts warn that a drop in faith affiliation will have a significant impact on people in need—as well as on the U.S. economy. The decline, also called the rise of the “Nones,” is “not only a concern for religious organizations,” notes the Faith Counts study, “but constitutes a national health concern.”