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Deaths of Despair Hit an All-time High but Connection Can Save Lives

Rabbi Yosef Lipsker | March 26, 2019

Behind the numbers: Deaths of despair hit an all time high

A recent story in USA Today reported that deaths by overdose and suicide, or deaths of despair, are at an all-time high. The numbers are truly staggering, almost overwhelming. We need to address the underlying issues – the lack of social connection and hopelessness - that lead to despair if we are to create a space for healing.

We hear a lot of stats and numbers when it comes to substance use disorder, but we should never forget that one is a number, too. The Talmud teaches us that if we save one life, we have saved an entire world. The statistics underscore just how critical it is to continue our work of restoring meaningful connections.

Addiction leads to isolation and a loss of community -- compounded these days by the impact of social media. People struggling with addiction often feel disconnected from their families, from their friends and from their loved ones. Sometimes, they even deteriorate to a point where they don’t even love themselves. They may be physically present, but there’s no emotional connection. They may be loved and valued by family, friends and colleagues but often they don’t experience it. They may feel overwhelmed by guilt and shame.

Caron’s comprehensive clinical team, which includes doctors, psychologists and a range of specialists, excels in treating the many interwoven facets of addiction. But it can be hard for someone to fully recover until they restore the connection to their soul, family, friends and community.

Nearly 20 years ago, my wife, Chana, and I began inviting patients and their families to our home for Shabbat dinner on Friday nights. At those dinners we laugh. We tell stories. We sing together. And, of course, there’s Chana’s amazing challah, along with other delicious food.

Every single Friday night, someone at the table will make a remark like this: “I haven’t been at a family dinner in years.” “I haven’t felt connected to a community since I was a child.” “This reminds me of my family when things were good.” Somehow, the simple act of having someone over for dinner changes everything. It automatically sends a message of trust: We trust you to sit next to our children and participate in this special tradition with our family. We are honored to have you as our guest.

People return to campus from those dinners feeling a renewed sense of hope and a deeper level of commitment to their recovery. Over the years, many patients have shared with us that their experiences were contagious –  that powerful energy transferring to their Caron community.  

The power of nonjudgement, intimacy and spirituality 

People are not always open to the idea of letting go of control when they first begin treatment, and I understand that. I never try to force the issue, because you can’t bestow faith onto someone. But you can give people hope, often, and hope turns into faith.

It starts with showing them love. When you love people, they can love back.

It also starts with a conversation, a dialogue. Often, those deep in addiction have little to no meaningful conversations and connection to those around them. They have cut themselves off from relationships. They may have spoken with people, but they didn’t truly engage or show any feelings. That’s why our dinner conversations are so important.

The simple act of having a conversation builds a bridge to a relationship. We talk sometimes about spirituality and connection to a higher power, but it begins first with a connection between people. That is why I visit patients regularly and stay in touch with alumni, just to talk. Looking someone in the eyes, listening to them, and hearing and caring about their heartbreak. That alone can help.

If someone wants to talk about a hobby with me, then we’ll talk about that. We don’t even have to talk. Even something as basic as playing chess can be a powerful way of starting that conversation. You need say nothing; just listen.

As I noted in an interview with the Reading Eagle, everyone is looking for acceptance and authenticity - no matter what your background. As a Rabbi, I was taught that spirituality is not always about the rituals – it’s about living your life with integrity. To be spiritual – you must regard honesty as an important value in how you relate to yourself and others.

There’s a story I like to tell about a man who encounters a young boy on the beach. The boy is picking up the starfish dying on the sand and tossing them back into the water, one by one. The man challenges the child by saying that what he is doing won’t make any difference because there are many thousands of starfish along the beach. Yes, answers the boy, but it made a difference to that starfish. So, it is with the epidemic of overdoses and suicides sweeping our country. We must have faith that you can change the world – one person at a time.

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