A group of leaders in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that is addressing the region’s opioid addiction crisis by inviting churches to play a prominent role in developing solutions has earned a $200,000 federal planning grant.
The Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on Wednesday, Sept. 19, awarded the grant to the Holy Friendship Collaborative, a regional initiative to promote addiction prevention, treatment and recovery. The collaborative will use the grant to work closely with local churches focused on tackling this issue.
Dr. Andi Clements, a psychology professor at East Tennessee State University, who will serve as project director, thanked the federal government for this grant.
“Opioid addiction has significantly harmed our region and created a critical need to act swiftly,” she said. “We have developed an innovative approach by mobilizing houses of worship to act on the Biblical mandate to help those who are suffering. Our organizing committee has been blessed because so many congregations are answering the call, and this approach will provide a solid framework to eliminate opioid addiction’s grip on our area.”
With the grant funds, the collaborative will hire a coordinator who will work with houses of worship to create programs that align with their level of interest. The coordinator will share best practices and work with congregations individually and in groups as well as with the organizing committee.
Other primary activities will be:
· Formalizing a consortium among Duke University Theology, Medicine and Culture Initiative; Ballad Health; Frontier Health; Highlands Community Services; and the ETSU Psychology Department
· Establishing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization
· Conducting a detailed analysis of gaps in opioid addiction prevention, treatment and recovery in rural areas of the region and developing strategic and workforce plans to address those needs
· Completing a sustainability plan
Members of the collaborative’s organizing committee were motivated to act after seeing concerning statistics that showed the impact of opioid drugs in the region. For instance, the rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome — children born addicted to drugs — in Northeast Tennessee is 10 times the national rate. In some local counties, NAS is as high as one in 10 births.
Rates of opioid use, overdose and NAS have climbed nationally in the last decade, but the situation has been even more pronounced in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. An insufficient workforce to provide needed behavioral support, the failure to tackle root causes of addiction and diversion by prescription recipients of medications used to assist in addiction treatment are among the causes.
“This is a significant quality of life issue that affects people in all socioeconomic groups,” said Lottie Ryans, director of workforce and literacy initiatives with the First Tennessee Development District. “I have listened to many heartbreaking stories about the damage of opioid addiction and have been touched by the courage shown by the people who have overcome addiction. The collaborative is committed to creating the infrastructure that will allow more people to move forward with their lives and ensure others do not have to experience addiction.”’
In addition to Clements and Ryans, an organizing committee of about 15 people consisting of local clergy, educators, medical professionals and other leaders began exploring the issue in greater depth in 2017.
They teamed with representatives of Duke University and Duke Divinity School to hold the Holy Friendship Summit, a two-day event in May 2018 that discussed opioid addiction from a Christian perspective. The summit attracted about 450 participants and was sponsored by Ballad Health, Gregory Pharmaceutical Holdings, Chick-fil-A Tri-Cities, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, Jacqueline F. Leonard in memory of Frank Leonard, State Street United Methodist Church, the Bristol Herald Courier, the Kingsport Times News and the Johnson City Press.
The organizing committee viewed the summit as the initial step in the process, with the faith community mobilized to create long-term solutions. At a follow-up meeting in July, 79 people from 29 churches and 12 organizations in the region attended. Additional engagement with these groups will follow a model developed by Duke’s Reimagining Health Collaborative.
“We are thrilled to see so many members of faith communities recognizing the impact of opioid addiction and joining this cause,” said Farr Curlin, M.D., an organizing committee member and co-director of Duke’s Theology, Medicine and Culture Initiative. “People turn to churches for support and counsel in times of challenge, and congregations can become the communities in which many find healing from addiction. This grant will go a long way toward building supportive networks that will lead to a healthier region.”
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