NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: part two of our series on life expectancy.
After decades of annual increases, the nation is now in its longest period of declining life expectancy since about 1920. Our first report detailed the uptick in suicides as one reason.
And you just heard a report alluding to the second reason: death by drug overdose. Nearly half a million Americans died from opioid and other drug overdoses in the first 14 years of this century. So that’s about 35,000 on average per year. But in 2017, the figure doubled: 70,000 people died.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And those numbers don’t seem to be slowing down.
Drug rehab facilities have popped up all over the country to meet the need, and it’s still not enough.
A handful of these are run by Christians. WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg spoke with some of these ministries.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Rebecca Mitchell started drinking and smoking marijuana when she was 14-years-old. Her father was an addict and left when she was five.
MITCHELL: As time went on, um, as I got older, the drugs progressed. I had no problem using. When I was in college I would, I would drink every night and snort cocaine, but I’d still go to school and work full time.
Her addiction escalated when she was 21. That was when she tried heroin for the first time.
MITCHELL: Once I discovered heroin, in six months time I lost my house. I lost my car, I lost my job, I stopped going to school and I started living in my car. It was like, it changed something in me and I just could not stop thinking about it.
Dr. Christian Thurstone is the director of behavioral health at Denver Health in Colorado. He says the root of the increasing number of addictions like Mitchell’s stretches back to the ‘90s.
THURSTONE: So first, in the 1990s prescription pain pills were marketed aggressively. Second, there was some misinformation about how potentially addictive the opioid analgesics or opioid painkiller medicines are. Then there was a tightening up of the, um, prescribing of opioid painkillers. So that I’m also became difficult because then people had to switch to heroin because it’s a lot cheaper and more potent.
Thurstone says relaxing attitudes toward drugs have also played a role in the current overdose epidemic.
THURSTONE: Marijuana has become more legal and use of a daily marijuana use has become much more common. And so we know that that’s something that is a precursor to using other substances.
And as the number of addicts increases, most never get help.
THURSTONE: We know that only about 10 percent of people who have an addiction actually get treatment for it.
Among the groups trying to change that are Christians who point addicts to spiritual and physical healing. Julianne Garton is the director of a Teen Challenge 180 Ministries recovery home for women in Colorado. It offers a rare benefit: mothers are allowed to bring their children with them.
GARTON: A lot of times when a mom is shooting up, high on drugs, the child is neglected and needs healing as well. And our program allows for the healing of the mom and the child together.
Because of great demand, many secular rehab facilities only let clients stay for 90 days. Garton’s recovery home lets women stay for up to two years. She says that allows women to make lasting life changes.
GARTON: The beauty of the second year is that they still have a covering over them. They still have people that are going to check on them and even drug test if, if the need is seen, and they’re are able to go out into the community and get a job.
Even Christians not directly involved with recovery centers are finding other ways to help people struggling with drug addiction.
Dave Safford was addicted to meth and opioids until he enrolled in a Christian rehab program in California.
SAFFORD: It changed every aspect of my life.
Now, five years later, he’s living in rural Carbon County, Utah, which has the highest number of overdose deaths in the state.
Last year, he started a thrift store called Lost and Found. Safford uses the store’s profits to send drug addicts to the same Christian program he attended.
So far, the thrift store has sent 40 people to rehab.
SAFFORD: And so out of the 40 people we have 12 that are clean and sober to this day. Three of them are still over there in treatment, two are in prison. The rest of just went back out and tried it again. But you know, we’ll take them numbers.
Rebecca Mitchell also found hope at a Christian rehab facility. After five years of heroin addiction and two failed stays at secular rehab programs, she went to the Hoving Home in New York. That’s where she met Jesus.
MITCHELL: The first thing I saw on the paperwork was Jeremiah 29:11. And that gave me hope that God had plans for me. It ignited hope in me in a way that nothing else did.
Ten years after getting clean, Mitchell is the director of a Hoving Home facility in California.
MITCHELL: Eighty-five percent of women that uh walk through our doors and complete, are successful for up to five years.
Rebecca Mitchell, Dave Safford, and Julianne Garton say more Christians need to get involved in combating the drug overdose epidemic. They can donate time or money to Christian rehab centers or build relationships with people before and after recovery.
Mitchell says Christians have something to offer drug addicts that no one else does: a Savior.
MITCHELL: The world’s labeled me a lot of things. It’s labeled me an addict, a junkie. I’m a felon, a prostitute, but I don’t feel like I’m wearing any of those labels today because I’m new. But in the secular component, you keep those labels. You just have to learn how to deal with them and there’s no hope in that.
Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg.