Several diocesan offices and the Samaritan Counseling Center gathered to address the crisis of opioid addiction and related deaths that has hit Western New York with a workshop that addressed the scientific, social and spiritual perspectives of addiction. The Sept. 22 presentation, held at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, was one in a series of events that the diocese has held on the topic.
Deacon Greg Moran, who served as MC, said the day is meant to be more than educational, it should be relationship forming. "We want to be in the process of not just knowing what to do, but who can I tackle this problem with," he said.
Dr. Richard Blondell, vice chair of addiction medicine at the University at Buffalo, gave a presentation via pre-recorded video. He addressed addiction from a medical angle, addressing what opioids are and how addiction occurs.
Between 1991 and 2010, prescription for opioids increased from 75.9 million to almost 210 million prescriptions. The number of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction rose at the same rate. Blondell blames this on the active marketing of medications to doctors. Dr. Arthur Sackler, who he calls the granddaddy of drug marketing, first marketed Terramycin to doctors in the 1950s. Later, he marketed Valium, once the most prescribed drug in the country. More recently, he sold Oxycontin, which also became a blockbuster drug, financed in part by health insurance companies.
"This epidemic really started, in my opinion, with aggressive marketing from the pharmaceutical companies with potent drugs like Oxycontin to doctors who wrote prescriptions for these highly addictive medications, given to patients who were requesting medications for pain relief, sometimes under false pretenses," Blondell said.
In 2010, doctors were forced to level off on prescriptions. This led people already hooked on the opioids to seek out illegal heroin. The body cannot differentiate one opioid from the other.
What causes addiction? Blondell simply said genetics, but also added exposure. Peer pressure can make someone try a drug, but genetics hooks them. He explained that everyone's brain has a need for water and food, and will seek these out when needed. Certain drugs can hijack the brain into thinking it needs opioids.
Dr. Paul Updike, director of addiction medicine and recovery services at Catholic Health, one of four presenters, explained that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain. Once someone is an addict, they're always an addict. He compared it to other chronic diseases, such as diabetes. It can be under control, but never cured.
"I like to say, in terms of the brain, we're all born with a cucumber. We can always make it a pickle, but once you make it a pickle, it can't go back to a cucumber again," he said.
Treatments can be non-medical, which involve professional counseling and living in a structured environment; or medical, which would see maintenance and drug therapies. One reason treatments have a low success rate is because addicts usually wait as long as 10 years before seeking help. Updike said prevention is the best way to deal with addiction.
"We can do this by promoting abstinence, especially in families, you tell the kids, don't start. ... Then, when people start showing the signs of addiction you intervene and treat then. We all have our part to do - pharmacists, patients, pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies. Everybody contributes a little bit to solving this problem," he said.
Updike's advice for avoiding addiction is to use drugs as prescribed, and to properly dispose of drugs not used. Warning signs include using drugs not for pain, but to feel good or change one's mood. If you think you have a problem, tell your doctor. Families should be educated on drugs and family history. Parents should tell their children if they are at risk of addiction.
Rev. Robert Spilman, from Samaritan Counseling Center, encouraged people to look at the bigger picture and not just work with symptomatic people. Addiction should be looked at as a family issue, not just an individual's problem, because it does affect the entire family just as any chronic disease would.
"Work on your own family, and as you do that you will connect up in your thinking and in your being with other families," he said.
The event drew about 80 people, a mix of deacons, protestant minsters and parish advocates.
"I thought they were very good. There was a lot of information," said Nick Gallegos, a parish advocate at St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville.
"I think the whole idea of education is something that is so critically important. I came understanding some things, maybe there was common knowledge, but this was so much beyond that. The interaction with some of the people here that had suffered losses was profoundly influential on my motivation to do even more."
St. Greg's is at the beginning stages of offering support and referrals through the parish advocacy program.
Sister Ellie Martinez, GNSH, had worked in the addiction field for 33 years as director of Renaissance Campus, a program of Alcohol and Drug Dependency Services. She came to be a resource for others.
"I wanted to see if any of my two cents that I could share or put in now that the Church is so open to working with addiction or referring people to the correct services. I wanted to be a part of that," she said. "I think this is a disease that is hurting our future generations tremendously, and causes a great deal of pain with families. I have seen many of our kids on campus leave treatment and wind up either killing themselves or overdosing. It's a painful thing because they're so young. Their whole life is in front of them."