Jesus told the parable of a man named Lazarus lying outside a rich man’s gates, covered with sores and so famished he would gladly have eaten scraps off the rich man’s table. The dogs would come to lick his wounds as he lay neglected in his pain. After he was carried off to Heaven and reclined in Abraham’s company, he is described as “comforted.” 

Biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey explains the significance of this, “Lazarus is not described as healed, in which case his main problem would be his sores. Nor is he well fed, which would mean that his hunger was the focus of his suffering. But Abraham affirms that he was comforted which demonstrates that outside the rich man’s gate he was in anguish. It was psychic pain that hurt the most.” Time and time again Christ healed bodily ills, but in the context where they were seen as an impediment to communal worship; his healing was penetrating a deeper spiritual illness. In this parable Christ reminds us of the deepest source of pain – isolation – and our call to respond to it.

In the throes of the heroin epidemic we need to speak more of this “psychic pain” devastating Americans. Millions of words have already been spilled about the Purdue Pharma scandal, a post-industrial workforce, economic erosion of rust belt towns, poor drug policies, crooked physicians and lack of resources for those suffering mental illness. There’s no doubt these factors contribute to the alarming numbers publicized about Americans ravaged by this crisis. But we cannot fail to discuss the similarly rampant ineffable source that leaves even the most scientific minds calling this an “existential” crisis. I might call it spiritual.

Middle-aged whites without a college degree are now dying earlier, on average, than their parents, a statistic “anomalous outside of wartime.”  52,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2015. This is four times as many as died from gun homicides and half as many as died in car accidents. More than 2 million Americans are now hooked on some kind of opioid. Heroin and fentanyl claimed more American lives last year than were lost in the entire Vietnam War. There has never been a drug addiction quite like this one.

If each drug epidemic reveals something about the ethos of the people that are addicted, then the use of pain-killing opioids or heroin reveals a population deeply hungering for escapism. While cocaine is a stimulant, meth creates euphoria, and LSD psychedelic trips, heroin and opioids numb pain, they withdraw you from the world, from life. To quote one recovering addict I interviewed, “It’s like sleepwalking away from emotional pain.”

Leo Beletsky, a professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University, points to the fact that the US has seen rises in other deaths of despair, such as suicide and alcohol-related deaths, as proof that something deeper has gone wrong in American life. In his study, Opioid Crisis: No Easy Fix to Its Social and Economic Determinants he explains his key findings on the role of opioids in the addict’s life, “[Opioids] are a refuge from physical and psychological trauma, concentrated disadvantage, isolation, and hopelessness.”

In researching numerous pockets throughout the deindustrialized steel production area of Pennsylvania people using heroin cited economic hardship and hopelessness as reasons for drug use.

But there’s something else Beletsky’s study revealed: the communities that were immune.      

“Some communities’ protective family and social structures generate resilience that mitigates negative impacts from the collision of economic hardship, substance use, and depression.” People who felt abandoned by corporate industry and shame in their new livelihood could find meaning and dignity in their community. In fact, his studies found that the counties with the lowest levels of social capital (also known as a human support network) have the highest overdose rates and vice versa.

Christopher Caldwell, senior editor of the Weekly Standard corroborates this, “It is common to speak of addiction as an ‘equal-opportunity disease’ that can ‘strike anyone.’ While this may be true on the pharmacological level, it was until quite recently a sociological falsehood. In fact, most of the country had powerful moral, social, cultural, and legal immunities against heroin and opiate addiction.”

By no means should these findings fix blame on the communities battling this epidemic or reveal some ineptitude. The psychological warfare of community erosion at the hands of heedless globalism and greedy pharmaceutical companies can be insurmountable. But these findings offer a slim reason to hope in the face of this impact, it’s a reminder that the reality of grassroots community and spiritual efforts having an impact is not so unlikely.

Statistics detach us from the human beings.They make us feel far removed from the issue. Those of us outside of rust belt towns feel free of confrontation and lulled into a “this is their problem” mentality. The constant discussion about globalism, pharmacological corruption and drug policies even further remove us from a position of responsibility, “leave this to the politicians,” we may think. But while we wait for politicians to “fix it,” a famished man covered in sores lays outside our gates enduring psychic pain. And as Catholics we are called to do more than leave him to the dogs.

Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.