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Clergy's offer of spiritual help to drug addicts detailed at Westmoreland seminar

Stephen Huba
| Wednesday, March 8, 2017, 5:00 p.m.
Tim Krupar (second from left), a yoga instructor at the Mookshi Wellness Center in Pittsburgh, explains Buddhist meditation practices at a seminar on faith-based solutions to the opioid epidemic on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. With him are (from left) Dawn Hennessey, Monsignor Robert Statnick and VonZell Wade.
Photo by Stephen Huba
Tim Krupar (second from left), a yoga instructor at the Mookshi Wellness Center in Pittsburgh, explains Buddhist meditation practices at a seminar on faith-based solutions to the opioid epidemic on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. With him are (from left) Dawn Hennessey, Monsignor Robert Statnick and VonZell Wade.
Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli addresses a seminar at the Bishop Connare Center on faith-based responses to the opioid epidemic on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. With her are Commissioners Ted Kopas and Charles W. Anderson.
Photo by Stephen Huba
Westmoreland County Commissioner Gina Cerilli addresses a seminar at the Bishop Connare Center on faith-based responses to the opioid epidemic on Wednesday, March 8, 2017. With her are Commissioners Ted Kopas and Charles W. Anderson.

While the unrelenting opioid epidemic continues to overwhelm first-responders, treatment programs and the criminal justice system, one group of professionals says it wants to be more a part of the solution.

Westmoreland County clergymen who gathered Wednesday at the Bishop Connare Center said they offer a non-judgmental attitude, a listening ear and relief from the guilt that feeds addiction.

“The disease of addiction affects us spiritually, mentally and physically,” said Tim Phillips, director of the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force. “The mental and physical are often addressed — I'm not so sure about the spiritual aspects.”

The conference, funded in part by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office, explored faith-based responses to the opioid epidemic that has plagued Pennsylvania — everything from prayer and confession, to counseling and belief in a higher power.

“People who want to recover tend to go to their clergyman. They want to pray, usually,” said Monsignor Roger Statnick, pastor of St. Sebastian Catholic Church in Belle Vernon.

Statnick has guided the Belle Vernon Area Ministerium toward more active outreach to addicts and their families. Churches must come to terms with the fact that their communities are “not Mayberry anymore,” he said.

“We are the agents of grace in people's lives,” he said. “People feel their lives are meaningless, and we are there to tell them, ‘No, there is a source of meaning.'”

VonZell Wade, clinical director at SpiritLife Inc., an inpatient treatment center in Penn Run, Indiana County, attributed his own addiction recovery to God.

“Individuals on this path to recovery that don't connect to a higher power, they don't stick around long,” he said. “Prayer is the most powerful tool we have in the midst of this.”

Conference participants learned that clergy interventions can be among the most effective. A recent study conducted by St. Vincent College professor Eric Kocian found that faith-based methods showed the highest rate of effectiveness — 95 percent — among the respondents.

Kocian and his team interviewed some 200 people at various stages of recovery from drug addiction. Respondents were found at local methadone clinics, day reporting centers, jails and Narcotics Anonymous meetings.

Kocian's survey listed about a dozen treatment options, ranging from methadone and Suboxone maintenance to inpatient and outpatient programs. He said those described as “religious” or “spiritual” were more likely to be seen as non-judgmental.

“There's more of a listening component,” he said, noting that addiction usually is a symptom of a deeper problem.

Kocian hopes to report his full findings to county officials this spring.

“My biggest concern — I hope we have enough resources in place for people who are addicted (to painkillers) to keep them from transitioning to heroin,” he said. “Heroin is the last stop on this vicious cycle.”

Among those attending the conference were county Commissioners Gina Cerilli, Ted Kopas and Charles W. Anderson.

Kopas said clergymen can help remove the stigma of addiction that often prevents people from asking for help. “You're in a very powerful position to do a very powerful thing,” he said.

Anderson said ending the heroin epidemic will require a “cultural change” similar to the shift in public attitudes toward smoking.

“I lost two cousins to this over the last several years, so everybody's involved and everybody needs to be involved,” he said. “This is a cloud that hangs over us all.”

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280 or shuba@tribweb.com.

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