Bill Clinton and Johns Hopkins Highlight Faith Leaders’ Role in Tackling Drug Overdoses

Former President Bill Clinton (D) spoke at a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health webinar focused on how religious leaders can help address an increase in drug overdose deaths. Screenshot.

Drug overdose deaths have spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, taking the lives of 87,203 Americans over a 12-month period that ended in September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This compares to nearly 68,757 drug deaths during the same period a year earlier.

In Maryland alone, there have been 2,600 reported drug deaths over a 12-month period that ended September, compared with 2,300 deaths in the state during the same period last year, according to federal data.

The surge in drug overdose deaths is a reminder that longstanding public health challenges continue during a global pandemic, Ellen J. MacKenzie, dean of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a webinar on the overdose crisis Tuesday with former President Bill Clinton and religious leaders.

Clinton (D) underscored the role that faith leaders can play to help address this public health crisis and to push against stigmatization of substance abuse disorders that often deters people from seeking help.

Faith leaders “can help people see that addiction is a chronic disease — not a personal moral failure — and that those who suffer from the disease need comprehensive treatment and support, not shame and stigma. The change of mindset will be key to overcoming this epidemic,” Clinton said in a prerecorded video.

Historically, there has been a lack of trust in healthcare among Black and Brown communities, said Bishop Vashti McKenzie of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first woman to be elected bishop in that denomination.

She said distrust has been fueled by cases such as that of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were taken without permission, and the Tuskegee experiment — when the United States Public Health Service did not treat Black men infected with syphilis so that they could observe them and learn more about the disease.

But the faith community can serve as a bridge between distrustful communities and science. Often, people will come to their pastor, priest, or rabbi before consulting a doctor, McKenzie said.

Sanjay Gupta, CNN chief medical correspondent, talks with former United States Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher and Bishop Vashti McKenzie about the faith community’s role in helping community members struggling with substance abuse disorders. Screenshot.

“The faith community becomes the trusted agent in which we could share information. If the community cannot trust one, then we can be the brokers of trust — to be able to create platforms where health professionals and scientists are able to come in,” she said.

Training faith leaders in handling addiction disorders and knowing when to refer people to health professionals is also key, she said.

Doctors should be made aware of cognitive biases, such as the belief that Black people have higher pain thresholds and thus do not need strong prescriptions, McKenzie continued.

Former United States Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher agreed. He said it is also the role of the scientists to teach how drug use affects different communities. Although substance abuse occurs among all segments of the population, there are racial disparities in legal consequences and in access to treatment.

Last week, the Biden administration announced that it would loosen federal guidelines to make buprenorphine, a very effective medication for opioid addiction, more available.

And, to decrease stigma, it would be more helpful to ask “what has happened to you” instead of “what’s the matter with you,” McKenzie said.

Inviting faith communities and law enforcement to the table would be the next step forward in decreasing criminalization and politicization of the opioid crisis and other drug addiction across the country, she continued.

Drug overdose “is not a moral flaw, it is not a moral failure, it is not a failure of families,” McKenzie said. “This is a health issue, it is a disease.”

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