Regardless of denomination, the majority of Christian children and teens attend some type of youth-specific programming, whether in the form of a youth group, youth ministry or religious education program. Therefore, youth leaders are in a prime position to influence young people on many issues that affect society. Unfortunately, in the United States, one of the most pressing issues is opioid abuse.
Despite their influential position, relatively few youth leaders appear to address opioid addiction, or even substance abuse in general, on a substantive basis. When opioid use is discussed, it is often in the form of a brief program framing addiction as a sin. However, as recent research indicates, many children in youth or teen Church-based programs are affected by the opioid epidemic in one way or another.
A Growing Crisis, a Devastating Toll
Current statistics estimate that every day, over 130 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose. In 2017 alone, the CDC estimates that almost 48,000 people died from any opioid-related cause, including deaths from overdosing on other substances while opioids were being used.
American’s youth are caught in the crossroads of this growing crisis. Nationwide, there are 8.7 million children who suffer from drug addiction or substance abuse disorders. Approximately 90,000 children were placed in foster care because of parental substance abuse. In addition, every 25 minutes in the United States, a baby is born with symptoms of opioid withdrawal.
The trauma caused by early-childhood neglect due to parental substance abuse can also lead to significant issues in youth, including school failure, increased risk of health conditions, and ultimately, a higher likelihood that the child will turn to drug and alcohol use themselves.
Perhaps the most striking statistic of all is that in 2017, 4,173 Americans under the age of 24 died from an opioid-related cause. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Adolescent Health estimates that in 2016, 3.6 percent of adolescents 12-17 reported misusing opioids during the year.
These startling statistics make one thing quite clear: The chances that every youth leader has at least one child or teen in their program that has been touched by the opioid crisis is high.
What Can We Do? A Faith-Based Response
It is abundantly clear that youth leaders are in a position to help combat the opioid crisis. Youth leaders are trusted role models that most Christian children and teens can turn to, not only for support with difficult situations, but as a moral compass for making difficult decisions, including decisions about drug use.
Youth programs already have a head-start in helping young people to make healthy choices. Programs that give youth recreational options that allow for supervision and access to positive role models have been shown to reduce delinquency, crime and risky behaviors. Youth groups have long been the community leaders at providing adolescents with options for socialization, recreation and faith formation.
To combat the opioid crisis, however, it’s time for youth leaders to go beyond just recreation programs. The likelihood that some of the youth in our programs have already suffered the effects of having a parent or other loved one with a substance abuse disorder means that we need to be prepared to work from a trauma-informed basis.
Children in your youth ministry that have grown up with trauma and neglect need safe people and good role models to help them learn healthy behaviors and to support them in their emotional and spiritual needs. Youth ministry can give these children a sense of security and belonging where they can explore their emotions in a safe and supportive environment. Youth leaders can especially focus on teaching resiliency skills, such as identifying their strengths, finding safety, problem solving and seeking support. Teaching these skills as part of your programming can help these students overcome the effects of their home environment.
Giving Youth Leadership Roles
Youth leaders can also help all students resist the temptation to turn to opioids by holding frequent and honest educational opportunities to learn about the effects of addiction. Chances are high that they know someone who is misusing prescription medications or experimenting with opioids. Encourage them to be leaders in fighting the epidemic by giving them the tools necessary to educate their friends and family about removing pain medications from the house once the issue they were prescribed to treat is resolved, to resist using medications not prescribed to them, and to say something if they see peers sharing medication.