ONU faculty members publish paper about opioid abuse in rural regions

Ohio Northern University faculty members Ross Kauffman and Keith Durkin have taken an interdisciplinary approach to the multifaceted problem of opioid abuse in the region. The resulting paper from their research, “Impact of Emotional Distress on Prescription Opioid Abuse in a Rural Juvenile Drug Court Sample,” was published in the December 2019 edition of the Ohio Journal of Public Health.

The paper involved a study of youths in Hardin County (Ohio) between January 2010 and November 2018.

Kauffman, Ph.D., is the director of public health in ONU’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, and Durkin, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Ohio Northern.

The research paper is especially relevant to Ohio and particularly the northwestern section of the state. As the paper states, Ohio is at the epicenter of the opioid epidemic, an unprecedented health crisis that claimed 72,000 Americans in 2017. As the paper further notes, opioid mortality rates increased an astonishing 918 percent since the early 2000s, and Ohio had the highest heroin overdose rate in the country in 2015.

Rural areas such as much of northwestern Ohio suffer a disproportionate burden compared to urban centers, the paper states, with higher rates of opioid-related overdoses and deaths. As the paper notes, rural areas have fewer resources than rural or suburban locations.

“This is now a non-metropolitan plague that has moved from the city to rural areas,” Durkin said. “One factor may be that there is more manual labor, as well as a strong work ethic, in farm settings. Individuals will often seek pain relief to keep working, and this is how opioid abuse often begins.”

As an example, approximately 7.7 million pain pills were prescribed in Hardin County during a recent six-year period.

“Youths were getting hooked by finding pills in their medicine cabinet or getting them prescribed by a well-meaning health care provider. It is not the stereotypical drug scenario, where they are buying them on the street corners,” Durkin said.

Kauffman, a native of Logan County, first became engaged with the opioid epidemic while spearheading the Northern Opioid Alliance, which looks to utilize ONU’s resources to address this problem in the region.

“Much of my prior work focused on tobacco control,” Kauffman said. “There are intriguing overlaps in the predictors for nicotine and opioid addiction, especially the growing body of evidence linking adverse childhood experiences like abuse to addiction in adulthood.” 

“Addiction is a vicious cycle in many ways. In addition to interfering with the body’s ability to produce ‘natural opioids’ to combat pain, addiction breaks down the person’s relationships with others and weakens their support system when it is needed most,” Kauffman said.

The paper further points out that the opioid epidemic involves a complex interplay between personal, social, cultural and economic factors.

“We found a very strong link between emotional problems and prescription opioid abuse among kids in juvenile drug court,” Durkin said. “While we found a declining trend in pain pill abuse, we found a very troubling increase in emotional problems by youths referred to the drug court. In fact, emotional problems have risen 89.5 percent on average since 2010.”

“While the prescription opioid abuse problem appears to be on the decline among juveniles, I am profoundly concerned that a very serious mental health crisis is on the horizon,” cautions Durkin.