Shelly Yankowsky is reflected in her son's gravestone in Glenburn. Shelly’s son Adam Yankowsky died in August 2017 of a drug overdose. Credit: Gabor Degre

Adam Yankowsky died last August of a drug overdose. Last year in our small state, 418 people like Adam died of a drug overdose. They were our sons, daughters, fathers, friends, mothers and co-workers. The opioid crisis has been declared a national public health emergency, with 42,249 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016.

Here in Maine that came as no surprise. We’ve witnessed our children dying. And they are dying all over the country, with opioid overdoses fueling a two-year drop in U.S. life expectancy. This disease is stealing our children. It is the rare person today in our state who has not been touched by this epidemic.

I was honored to be part of a unique interfaith healing service in Bangor in April. The service was one part of a local initiative organized by law enforcement, health care workers, addiction specialists, first responders and clergy. Our idea was to harness the great strength that resides in Maine’s faith communities by bringing them together for a community healing service. We asked every faith community to speak about addiction and provided them with an information sheet listing where they and their families could go for help.

By addressing the issue in places of worship, we can break down the shame and stigma that keep users from getting the help and support they so desperately need.

Our faith communities can help lead us out of this crisis by simply speaking more about opioid drug use. That simple act, speaking publicly about this disease, can begin to clear a path both for people struggling with drug use and their families to get help.

A similar historic example is the improvement in the treatment of HIV. Once the shame and stigma of gay lifestyles was overcome, scientific and medical knowledge accumulated at an accelerating rate leading to the development of effective therapies. Similarly, by learning about addictive drugs and the disease of opioid drug dependency and challenging the way we view opioid users — what some call our modern-day lepers — we can begin to move this mountain.

I was at Adam’s funeral last August. It was one of several I had attended in 2017 of young people who died of an overdose.

His parents, Shelly and Dave Yankowsky, stood up to shame, stigma and guilt, and publicly shared the story of their struggle with Adam’s addiction and ultimate death. In doing so, they put a face to 418 of Maine’s other children who died last year. In sharing their son’s life with us, he became everyone’s son. They are the bravest people I know.

In the face of such unspeakable sadness, it is understandable that we become overwhelmed and inaction sets in. We may tell ourselves the solutions to this epidemic are the sole purview of the police, health care workers, the courts, jails or government.

But the 418 Mainers who died last year were our children, not the government’s. More die each day. We must act.

What can we do? Bruce Campbell, a local addiction counselor, reminds me over and over again, “there are many paths to recovery.” In the same sense, there are many things we can do to help.

Learn about opioid users and the services available to help them, and pass on what we’ve learned. Listen to our friends, co-workers, or relatives who may be struggling with addiction in their families. Talk to our children. Seek volunteer opportunities at local agencies that offer support to people in recovery. Let local officials know that more addiction services are required. Babysit for someone who needs to make a treatment appointment. Support our first responders who are on the front lines. Ask clergy to host educational forums about addiction and recovery.

Small acts, like stones and prayers, can bring down seemingly mighty giants like this epidemic.

Marianne Lynch of Bangor is an assistant district attorney for Penobscot County. She is a candidate for Penobscot County district attorney.

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