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WSBT 22 Fact Finder: Amish Addiction

WSBT 22

Experts say the Amish deal with a very-present concern: Addiction. One area man is on a mission to help.

It's a project Amish elders have supported for more than a decade. A substance abuse support group for Amish youth.

Counselors say it's providing help in communities where the topic of addiction is gaining increasing awareness.

It's a contradiction many of us don't often see-- a close-knit home filled with tradition mirrored by teens experimenting with the modern world and its temptations during a rite of passage called Rumspringa.

"For the Amish, they do it at 16, they do it while they're still living at home,” said Chris Weber, an addictions counselor for the Amish.

The "it" -- experimentation with drugs and alcohol.

The hum of horse hooves greet Weber each week, in a town where horse and buggies carry Old Order Amish. His clients park their buggies to seek his addictions counseling inside a house of help.

"Probation offices and courts and other places, when they first discover that 'Oh my gosh, the Amish drink.' That they're kind of offended,” said Weber.

For more than a decade, the two story tan home for the Amish Youth Vision Project has helped teens who are court-ordered to do substance abuse counseling.

"Most of the kids I work with aren't addicts. They're what you run into with most juvenile arrests. Which is mostly just kids that are binge drinking,” Weber said.

A neat row of chairs are usually filled with teens from the third largest population of Old Order Amish in the nation.

"The culturally accepted thing is a lot of drinking. They're almost always arrested in a group,” Weber said.

A group, because Weber says growing up Amish is different. Everything is done in en masse. Sometimes up to 1,000 people at a time, even parties.

During Rumspringa, kids raised in the Amish community walk away from home at age 16 before deciding if they'll join the church.

One former Amish man, who didn't want to be on camera, says young people who leave home are told it's the reason they're not going to heaven so they just let go.

"Developmentally, what they're doing is they're figuring out what their limits are. They'll party for a little bit, they'll drink, they'll experiment with other things,” Weber said.

"There is drug use among the plain community but I know of a young gal that's in challenge right now,” said one Amish community member.

That man was part of more than 400 Amish who learned about the consequences of alcohol and drug use from Indiana State Police.

Amish elders asked for the meeting. Senior Trooper David Caswell says he's seen the fallout of drug use the Amish community.

“We've encountered Amish men and women who were impaired, passed out in the buggy and the horse was taking them home,” said Caswell.

The state doesn't track deaths by religion but in all of Elkhart County in 2016, 27 people died from alcohol-related causes, like chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, compared to 23 for drugs.

Connie Kerrigan is an outreach director for Parkview Health. She says the group dynamic that makes the Amish so close-knit can also be a barrier to fighting addiction.

“Addiction is well-steeped in shame. So the more that we can begin to break down those cultural walls, the better off we're going to be,” said Kerrigan.

That's why Weber says he tailors his treatment to fit Amish social norms.

"They're not used to talking about themselves, they're not used to talking about choices,” said Weber.

He teaches a "harm reduction" model-- encouraging kids to fight peer pressure regardless of the size of the group.

When they leave the house, Weber says they've created a new tradition.

"You realize…the best you can do is help people help themselves… Your job is to help people help themselves,” Weber said.

Experts say the counseling is really about honoring and respecting an individual's faith and religious practices, while addressing addiction that can affect all communities.

Weber says his class works best when it's an all Amish members. An Amish teacher leads most of the groups.

For more information on the services mentioned in this story follow these links:

Amish Youth Vision Project: http://ayvp.org/

Oaklawn Amish Services: http://www.oaklawn.org/amish-services#.WgDlzlWnFhE

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