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Clergy recruits educators to reduce stigma of opioid addiction

The Rev. Eric Olsen, pastor of Good Shepherd

The Rev. Eric Olsen, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Plainview, is co-chair of the Plainview-based Long Island Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods. A substance abuse conference his group is organizing partly aims to reduce the stigma in schools, so that students feel comfortable talking about addiction, and educators are equipped to help them, he said. Credit: Steve Pfost

When funeral homes in recent years called Pastor Eric Olsen to preside over services for young people who died of opioid overdoses, Olsen was struck by how parents were too ashamed to hold the funeral at their home churches.

“The stigma is so great, to expose yourself to the trusted clergy your family might have known forever was too painful for them,” said Olsen, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Plainview and co-chair of the Plainview-based Long Island Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods, a community-organizing group.

A substance abuse conference on Tuesday for educators that Olsen’s group is organizing is aimed in part at reducing the stigma in schools, so that students feel comfortable talking about addiction, and educators — some of whom are influential mentors to children — are equipped to help them, he said.

“The teachers need to say out loud that we are here for you and we are not going to judge you if you come to us, that we’re going to help you and provide resources,” Olsen said.

The conference, from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Plainview-Old Bethpage Middle School, 121 Central Park Rd. in Plainview, is for teachers, administrators, counselors and other educators. About 500 people from 41 Long Island school districts had signed up by Friday afternoon, Olsen said. Walk-ins are welcome.

A 7:30 p.m. “summit” at the school is for the general public, including students and parents.

Much of the focus of both events will be on opioids, because of the mounting number of overdose deaths from the drugs on Long Island and across the country. Thousands have died in recent years on Long Island alone. Training on administering Narcan, which reverses the effects of opioid overdoses, will be provided at the educators’ conference.

But the events will cover all types of substance abuse, and they will teach how to recognize the signs of it and how to prevent young people from turning to drugs in difficult periods in their lives.

“We haven’t yet provided them with the coping skills, or the skills to have alternative strategies for dealing with issues,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district, which has about 4,800 students.

Students recovering from addiction need support, but Lewis said she has heard of teenagers in recovery who were treated as pariahs once they returned to school.

“It completely worked against their recovery,” she said.

Graduates of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools are among more than 2,800 people from across Long Island who have died of opioid-related overdoses since 2010, with a number of cases from this year still under investigation, the cause of death pending, according to county records. The epidemic affects all districts, Lewis said.

“We can no longer put our heads in the sand,” she said.

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