Young Americans are dying at a rate not seen since the Vietnam War.
But they are not dying in combat – they’re dying of the effects of drug overdoses, alcoholism, mental illness and suicide, at a rate 200 percent higher than the 1980s in much of the United States.
A recent report from the U.S. surgeon general estimates that more than 27 million Americans have problems with prescription drugs, illegal drugs or alcohol. But just a fraction of those people, only 10 percent, get meaningful help.
And it’s not just substance addictions that are on the rise. Process addictions, related to behaviors, have also seen recent spikes. Pornography addiction in particular has reached what some view as crisis levels.
A 2011 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information estimated that roughly 47 percent of all American adults struggle with at least one of the 11 most common forms of process or substance addictions.
The prevalence of all kinds of addiction likely mean that most people in the pews of a Catholic Church on any given Sunday have experienced addiction in themselves or in a loved one.
So what is the Church doing to address the problem?
Dr. Gregory Bottaro is a clinical psychologist and the founder and director of Catholic Psych Institute in Connecticut. He frequently sees clients who are dealing with either substance or process addictions.
Part of the problem of addiction is a widespread misunderstanding of addiction as a lack of intellectual or spiritual willpower, Dr. Bottaro said.
“You have to recognize that there is an actual brain disease in effect," he told CNA.
“So as much as you can sit and talk through the issues, you’re dealing with real brain chemicals that are out of balance, and a real disease that has occurred in the brain, so approaching it from a number of different angles is very important."
And just like addicted individuals can build up tolerances to substances and require more to achieve the same effect, process addictions also show tolerance buildups, such as when a pornography addict requires more hardcore viewing to achieve the same release.
Erik Vagenius is the founder of Substance Abuse Ministry Scripts, or SAM Scripts, a faith and scripture based ministry designed to help ease the process from recognition of addiction to seeking professional help.
Vagenius, who has been involved in addiction ministry for decades and is a recovered alcoholic himself, said that the first step to solving the problem is recognizing that there is one.
“I firmly believe so much for this (ministry) to be part of the church," he told CNA. “(T)o have a church community that recognizes that they’re behind you, just as they would be if somebody had cancer, helps to destigmatize this thing."
“Unfortunately the reactions I sometimes get are well, this isn’t really a Catholic problem. But I’ll bet everybody in the pew on any given day has had some relationship with the disease of addiction," he added.
What does faith have to do with it?
Faith has long been a tenet of many addiction recovery programs. One of the most popular, Alcoholics Anonymous has strong Christian roots because it’s co-founder, Bill Wilson, had a spiritual awakening after he was hospitalized for his drinking in 1934. He joined the Oxford Group, a nondenominational Christian movement popular in the U.S. and Europe at the time, and helped found AA in 1935.
The AA tenets of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects and restitution for harm done to others grew out of Oxford Group teachings.
Today, allegiance to a specific creed is not required for membership, though the group still considers itself a spiritual, albeit denominationally non-preferential group. Four of the 12 steps in the AA program mention God directly, and the 12th calls for a “spiritual awakening as a result of these steps.”
Vagenius also considers addiction a spiritual battle.
“We’re dealing with a spiritual disease, and that’s why the Church needs to be involved with it," he said.
The website for SAM Scripts recognizes that “addiction is a spiritual illness that disconnects a person: from self, loved ones, and God. SAM’s mission is to help these individuals reconnect through education, prevention, referral, and family support."
Dr. Bottaro said he also incorporates faith in his recovery programs for addicts.
He said he was especially inspired after hearing a talk by Catholic speaker Christopher West, who specializes in Theology of the Body.
“He said basically we have this desire, and our desires are insatiable. So God made us with this desire for more more more, and with that desire we can do one of three things…we can become a stoic, and addict or a mystic."
A stoic ignores the desire or tries to repress it and pretend it doesn’t exist. An addict tries to fulfill their desires with the things of this world, and a mystic “directs their desires towards God, and that’s where we enter into that mysticism by transcending the finitude of this life," he said.
That’s still an abstract way of looking at a very real disease, Dr. Bottaro said. However, there are several Catholic programs that offer concrete assistance to struggling addicts of all levels.
Catholic recovery programs
On the less intensive side, Dr. Bottaro has developed an 8-week online program that anyone can access from home called Catholic Mindfulness. It adds the Catholic understanding of abandonment to Divine Providence to a traditional mindfulness approach to healing.
“If you look into what mindfulness is, you’re basically training your brain to know that you’re safe, because the anxiety response is how God made us to react to danger," he said. “The problem is we overuse that…we activate our anxiety response, but most of the time we’re not actually in danger. So mindfulness is basically paying attention to what’s actually real right now to convince your brain that you’re safe, and that corrects the brain chemistry."
“The Catholic perspective as to why we’re safe is that we have a Father who loves us and who always keeps us in his hands, and we have a reason to trust that everything is going to be ok."
Vagenius refers to those in his ministry as “SAM teams" who share their time and talent, typically through talks and meetings, to offering hope, healing and reconciliation to those touched by addiction. SAM teams provide a safe, confidential place for people to seek help and referral at the parish level.
Team members do not have to be in recovery but need to be acquainted with addiction, and must be approved by their pastor.
The ministry’s exact format varies from parish to parish, depending on those involved and the needs of the faith community. Vagenius’ trainings provide a basic format, and the parish SAM team develops its own dynamic from that outline based on specific needs.
Depending on the person, more intensive work may be necessary, including outpatient psychotherapy and group counseling, or even residential programs.
St. Gregory Retreat Center is a Catholic residential program for adults struggling with substance abuse located in Adair, Iowa.
The program offers separate residential facilities for men and women and offers a “holistic approach that combines the very best research in psychology, health, social support, and other methodologies."
The program targets addiction behavior in four different aspects of life: biological, psychological, social, and spiritual.
Besides counseling, social activities and physical exercise, daily Mass and regular access to the sacraments are part of the residents’ normal routine.
Natalie Cataldo, Director of Admissions at St. Gregory, told CNA that incorporating spirituality in the recovery process has proven to be very effective.
“Research shows that people are more successful in overcoming addiction when they have an active spirituality in their lives," she told CNA in an e-mail interview.
“Most people who come to us have had not a great past. With the sacrament of reconciliation, our guests are able to ask for forgiveness… Allowing them to feel like they are getting rid of the past, making new good habits for the future that they can start using and making better choices. It also allows for self reflection and self evaluation."
For those in post-recovery, there are programs available to help ease people back into their normal routine.
Dr. Bottaro works at one such facility, Ender’s Island in Connecticut, a residential program for young men “with or without faith" who are recently out of recovery. The program provides a community in which to practice the 12 steps and support for a better transition into regular life, as well as daily Mass and regular access to the sacraments.
The biggest barriers to seeking help for addiction can be denial on the part of the individual and a perceived stigma in seeking help. Increased education and understanding from everyone in the Church can help break these barriers, Dr. Bottaro said.
“It’s important to have support and understanding that there are other ways to fight these battles than just prayer, or just kind of sucking it up and hanging in there and seeing how far you can go before you get help," he said.
“Once you’re looking for help, there’s a wide spectrum."
This article was originally published on CNA Dec. 16, 2016.