The Role of Spirituality and Faith in the Treatment and Healing of SUDs



Dawn Tyus, LPC, MAC, NCC
Director, Southeast ATTC

Celene Craig, MPH, MS


Over the past decade, there has been an emphasis on addressing the acute alcohol and drug addiction crisis in the United States. In 2016, more than 63,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S., a 21.5% increase from 2015. As of 2018, 20.1 million Americans age 12 or older have a substance use disorder (SUD) involving alcohol or illicit drugs. Within this estimation, 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder (OUD), according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Though it may seem that life-saving medicines and psychological interventions are important biological aspects in helping a person with a SUD, treating the inner, spiritual side of healing through recovery is also a central part of the continuum of addiction healthcare.

From 2002 to 2018, recognition has increased for evidence-based studies that focus on the importance of patient spirituality in treatment and healing of SUDs due to a mandate by the Joint Commission on Accreditation and Healthcare for the administration of a spiritual assessment by healthcare providers for patients and their families. Evidence-based studies have demonstrated the positive impact of faith on health and wellbeing — such as leading to lower levels of substance abuse and reducing the likelihood of using various drugs — in the course of a lifetime. These findings make including a body-mind-spirit integrated model of intervention essential, and indispensable in substance abuse prevention and recovery. Addiction specialists have found that 73% of addiction treatment programs in the United States include a spirituality-based element and faith-based volunteer support groups contribute up to $316.6 billion in savings to the economy every year. According to an overview of the available evidence-based studies on the effectiveness of faith-based substance use support programs, conducted by Brian and Melissa Grim in 2019, 84% of the studies show that faith is a positive factor in addiction prevention or recovery and a risk in less than 2% of the studies reviewed.

Faith-based organizations fill the gap where federal and state agencies are logistically unable to effectively and comprehensively confront the substance use epidemic. It shows that these organizations are able to reach beyond the person with a SUD and wrap support around their family and community.

“The value of faith-oriented approaches to substance abuse prevention and recovery is indisputable and the current decline in religious affiliation in the USA is not only a concern for religious organizations but constitutes a national health concern,” Grim said.

For the past 17 years, the Southeast Addiction Technology Center’s (SATTC) vision has been to transfer technology to faith leaders; increase the SUD workforce capacity within faith settings; and increase assessment, referral and engagement to care. SATTC has collaborated with communities of faith through the facilitation of conferences, learning academies, listening sessions, webinars and SUD workshops. It has been our mission to:

  • Dialogue and strengthen the substance use disorder knowledge for people working in communities of faith.
  • Teach communities of faith how to be catalyst for change in their communities.
  • Teach faith communities how to spark the conversation that “recovery is real, and treatment does work”
  • Bridge the gap between faith systems and community providers.
  • Empower faith communities to reduce the stigma associated with substance use disorders.
  • Provide measurable results for our target population.
  • Build capacity associated with substance use disorders that will aid in creating powerful and sustainable recovery ministries.
  • Promote access to services and resources that will empower communities and their partners, to create a welcoming and supportive environment.

We are committed and eager to bridge the gap between community providers and communities of faith to dispel the stigma around addiction and increase the knowledge capacity of faith leaders in the Southeast region. Through our intensive technical assistance program-development process, learning communities and trainings, we are able to equip faith leaders with the knowledge and skills to be change agents in their communities and help all people suffering with a substance use disorder.


NIATx Principle #2: Fix Key Problems (And Help the CEO Sleep at Night)

Mat Roosa, LCSW-R
NIATx Coach



The NIATx model is driven by five principles that research has shown to be the hallmarks of successful improvement projects. These five principles emerged from an analysis of decades’ worth of research that gathered data from 640 organizations in 13 industries, examining 80 factors on why certain projects fail while others succeed.

Principle 1, Understand and Involve the Customer, is the single most important action a change team can take to set up a project for success. In fact, the NIATx research analysis showed that this one principle has a greater impact on success than the other four combined. (See related blog post: Why Understanding and Involving the Customer Matters in Behavioral Health.)

Lose sight of your customer (your client), and you lose sight of success. 

Principle 2: Fix Key Problems (And Help the CEO Sleep at Night) switches the focus to leadership. If a change project is to be successful, it needs the full support of the agency’s leadership. The way to ensure that support is by addressing the problems that truly matter to the CEO.

Kim Linwood of Milwaukee learned the NIATx principles at
NIATx Change Leader Academy in Madison, WI, June 2019.

Change Project Pitfall: Lack of executive sponsorship
Often when change leaders are completing the NIATx project charter, they come to the “executive sponsor” box, and simply fill in the name of their supervisor.

Many are fond of saying that “team” is more of a verb than a noun. It is the act of “teaming” that creates results. The executive sponsor role in relation to the change team reflects this same truth. That is why we need to ask a critical follow-up question: Who is the Executive Sponsor, and what are they doing to ensure the success of the change project?

If everything is a priority…
We all know the second half of this statement: then nothing is a priority.

Executive Sponsors create and maintain priorities. One of the most powerful functions of the Executive Sponsor can be expressed in the following contrasting statements from two Executive Sponsors:

  • ES #1: “This change project is important, but make sure you keep doing everything else that we are already working on.”
  • ES #2: “This change project is important, so I am going to reassign a couple of tasks to make sure that you have the time you need for the change project to succeed.”

Strong Executive Sponsors like #2 approve the new project for takeoff, and they clear the runway to make sure that the project can pick up the speed it needs to lift off. It is critical to have the ES at the table during the formative stages of the project development to ensure adequate engagement and support. When an ES is reluctant to come to the table beyond a simple approval of the project, the Change Leader can help by reminding the ES of their critical role:

  • We need you to role model support for the change project.
  • We need you to dedicate resources to this effort.
  • We need you to remove the obstacles to our success.
  • We need you to encourage our team.

Change projects with weak executive sponsorship often fail to get off the ground. Change projects with strong executive sponsorship can soar.

About our Guest Blogger 
Mat Roosa was a founding member of NIATx and has been a NIATx coach for a wide range of projects. He works as a consultant in the areas of quality improvement, organizational development and planning, evidence-based practice implementation, and also serves as a local government planner in behavioral health in New York State. His experience includes direct clinical practice in mental health and substance use services, teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and human service agency administration. 
You can reach Mat at: matroosa@gmail.com