There is a pandemic raging across America. No, it is not the coronavirus.
It has been around much longer and claims the lives of more than 100,000 Americans every year. No vaccine can protect you from it, and though it is not even in the same category as COVID-19, its effects can be as devastating.
I am speaking, of course, about substance abuse.
Substance abuse is not a new problem in the U.S., but it is definitely getting worse. In recent years, drug overdoses and deaths have reached record highs, due in part to the over-prescription of opioids. Unfortunately, those dealing with substance addiction have been treated as criminals instead of people who need treatment for a disorder they often cannot control.
My friend Joshua’s story is an example of how devastating substance abuse can be.
When I met him I could tell he was a young man full of potential, but meth addiction had taken its toll on him. Intense use can cause brain damage, and Joshua was no exception. Before coming to us he had been homeless and caught in a 14-month long methamphetamine-induced psychosis. Meth had severely impaired his ability to function.
“The only time I was able to get any peace was when I was asleep,” Joshua told us. “It took getting arrested for me to finally agree to seek help.”
America’s approach to substance addiction has not always been helpful. Our laws have focused on punishment rather than caring for those suffering from it, leaving them marginalized. Stigma — even from health care providers — discourages many from opening up about their problems and seeking help.
This attitude didn’t sit right with my father and me. In the mid-90s, we launched the Los Angeles Dream Center through our church to help those in need in our community. We bought an old hospital in downtown Los Angeles and renovated it into a residential building that provides housing, care and emotional and spiritual support to people under the control of addiction.
Through the years, hundreds of homeless individuals and families, gang members and those struggling with addiction have come through our doors and left transformed.
After eight months with us, Joshua started seeing improvements. He no longer felt consumed by anxiety, and found comfort and strength in his faith.
“A lot of my insecurities have gone away because of my confidence in Christ,” Joshua said. “I read the Word and talk to God on a daily basis. The Spirit nudges me when I am tempted to do something wrong, reminding me to leave the world better than I found it.”
Joshua is now in his third year at the Dream Center. He has found a full-time job, is saving money and has even purchased a car. His physical health also has improved; he has lost over 80 pounds since coming to us. This month he graduated from our Transitions program, which provides housing, meals and counseling and helps trainees get the skills necessary to live independently.
Ours is but one of many organizations working desperately to reform America’s approach to substance abuse. Our work has taught us that programs that focus on rehabilitation can have a long-lasting effect and break the cycle of addiction.
We recently entered the third year of the pandemic era. But we are now in the third decade of our substance abuse crisis.
America is long overdue in launching a recovery plan that treats substance abuse as the health emergency it is.
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