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Sociology professor tackles opioid-use epidemic plaguing area youth

Nov 14, 2017

Keith Durkin is a man on a mission. Durkin, professor of sociology at Ohio Northern University, has seen how drug use has ravaged the area during his seven years as a quality assurance specialist for the Hardin County Juvenile Court.

“The abuse of opioids is now at epidemic levels in the region, and juveniles are now abusing these dangerous drugs,” he said.

In response, Durkin has teamed up with Hardin County court official Wade Melton to develop a plan to combat this epidemic. Melton is director of programs for the Hardin County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile Division. Their efforts were supported by an Ohio Department of Youth Services Competitive RECLAIM grant.

The report, “Correlates of Prescription Opioid Abuse in a Juvenile Court Sample,” examines the problem of non-medical use of prescription opioids among youths in the Hardin County Juvenile Court, including factors contributing to the malaise, ramifications and suggested steps to take.

“We were able to look at seven years of data to get a fairly complete overview. What we are finding is that many of these youngsters have mental-health issues,” Durkin said. “The fact that mental-health problems are so strongly associated with opioid abuse was clearly the biggest and most unexpected finding.”

“Other contributing factors are peer drug use and family conflict,” Durkin said. “Actually, these two factors are related. Kids who are in bad home situations tend to hang out with others outside of the home to escape their family dynamics and, in turn, tend to fall into the wrong crowd.”

Youngsters are beginning their substance-abuse problems at an alarmingly early age.

“Statistics show that kids in juvenile court in Hardin County get high or drunk for the first time between the ages of 12 and 13 on average,” Durkin said.

Painkillers that are not prescribed to them are often the drug of choice for these youths.

“Instead of hitting the liquor cabinet, they are now hitting the medicine cabinet,” Durkin said. “Use of these pain pills often becomes the gateway to heroin.” National statistics indicate almost 90 percent of heroin users started with the abuse of prescription opioids first. 
“This is not the traditional youthful experimentation. The stakes are too high and the consequences too dire,” Durkin said. “We rarely saw this type of drug use by youngsters when I began working with the court seven years ago, and it is a problem that is growing out of control.”

Melton echoed those thoughts.

“The biggest concern is the trend in drug use. Five years ago, we did not have a case in the juvenile court that involved non-prescription, opioid-based pain relievers. These drugs are now involved with 21 percent of the cases.”

The surrounding region is ground zero for this plague.

“With its rural location, Hardin County is the prototypical breeding ground for opioid use. It is not better, but not worse, than other places,” Durkin said. “This has been a problem that has been especially prevalent in areas such as this for years. Opioids are cheap and easily available, which is a dangerous combination.”

The ramifications are long-lasting.

“There are impacts on the community and taxpayers, especially as more children are at risk of being placed in foster care as their parents struggle with addiction,” Melton said. “Unless we figure out how to stabilize the situation, it could easily mean this generational cycle could continue. We want youth to grow up to be good family members and productive members of society. All of that is at risk.”

The study by Durkin and Melton is designed to help determine the best course of action to stem this problem. This is a complicated issue that will involve a complex solution.

“At least we now understand some of the dynamics involved with opioid use, and we can look at how to address the situation. There are many layers of factors that involve mental illness, peers, family and spiritual support. It is going to take coordinated efforts between stakeholders, including parents, law enforcement, the court and counselors, as well as an interdisciplinary approach that addresses sociological and psychological factors.”

“This situation did not arise overnight, and it will require a sustained effort to combat it,” Durkin said.