Penn State social science researchers collaborate to study opioid epidemic

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Drug overdoses from prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids have increased by 20 percent since 2015, killing some 64,000 Americans last year. In response, social science researchers at Penn State are leading initiatives to combat the increasing rates of illicit drug use.

Researchers in the Justice Center for Research (JCR), led by Glenn Sterner, postdoctoral scholar, are working to identify opioid distribution networks and ways to disrupt them across 16 counties in Pennsylvania. Although prior studies of opiate distribution networks have been published, they refer primarily to the distribution of illegal drugs like heroin, and do not include the operation of opioid-related social networks. Consequently, the team is developing new conceptualizations of distribution networks, highlighting the ways prescription painkillers make their way into rural communities.

Sterner and JCR colleagues Gary Zajac, managing director of the JCR; Ashton Verdery, assistant professor of sociology and demography; and Pete Forster, associate teaching professor of information sciences and technology, also are facilitating public listening sessions on opioid addiction in Dauphin, Franklin and York Counties. At these listening sessions, local and state officials discuss local and state resources for opioid addiction that are available for public access. In addition, there are opportunities for participants to highlight their perspectives on additional services needed in their community to combat the opioid epidemic. The listening sessions are a collaboration between the Dauphin County Drug and Alcohol Services, York County Coalition, Franklin County Overdose Drug Task Force, and The Pennsylvania Coalition for Addressing Heroin and Opioid Addiction (PaCHOA).

Sterner and his colleagues are also working with the Pennsylvania State Police to determine what data might be best used to identify emerging or growing drug problems from a law enforcement perspective. To improve data coordination, they have suggested developing a centralized and mandatory drug reporting system at the state level to capture law enforcement information, increasing funding for coroners and medical examiners to ensure accurate and timely drug testing, sharing data across agencies and using data fusion models to combine and model data.

Diana Fishbein, professor of human development and family studies and director of the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center and Sterner authored an op-ed piece published in The Hill. They argued that the opioid crisis will not be solved by an individual agency or a single state. Instead, a comprehensive, science-driven approach that combines the efforts of local, state and federal agencies and industry is needed. The researchers recommend that the federal government take swift action to coordinate the implementation of these solutions, including disinvesting in incarceration, investing in prevention and in social and medical research, assisting with collaborative data sharing, and addressing the stigma of opioid addition.

Additionally, Sterner authored a paper published in a special edition of the Journal of Change on the opioid crisis. Sterner considers the stereotypes surrounding opioid addiction and offers steps to alleviate the stigma associated with addiction.

In the Center for Health Care and Policy Research, a team of researchers, including Young Hee Nam, Yunfeng Shi, Dennis Shea and John Moran, all faculty in health policy and administration, are investigating the impact of Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP), which are being implemented in an increasing number of states to address the opioid epidemic. In a paper published in the American Journal of Managed Care, the researchers reported on the impact of these programs on drug overdose mortality rates across all drug categories from 1999 to 2014, and each of the categories separately from 1999 to 2010, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They examined 34 states that began operating PDMPs in 2002 or later and found that prescription-drug monitoring programs had no appreciable impact on drug overdose mortality rates. Moreover, PDMPs may actually have contributed to increases in mortality rates from the use of illicit drugs and other (unidentified) drugs. These counterintuitive effects were concentrated in states with PDMPs operating for five or more years.

“The potentially positive impacts of PDMPs, which were not examined in our study, may eventually lead to a reduction in mortality rates,” said Shi. “For now, at least, our results point to a potential unintended consequence of PDMPs, whereby reduced access to prescription drugs may have led some individuals with addictive disorders to look for alternatives.”

Shannon Monnat, former assistant professor of rural sociology, demography and sociology, examines geographic patterns in opioid misuse and mortality and other diseases and “deaths of despair.” Monnat also discovered a link between voting patterns in the recent U.S. Presidential Election; areas of the country that had voted Democratic in the last presidential election but then supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election were also places where opioid overdoses and deaths occurred more frequently. These are areas where economic distress has been building, and where social and family networks have been breaking down for several decades.

Monnat found that these factors are often coupled with long, easy access to opioids and a desire to escape pain, stress, anxiety, shame and hopelessness. She collaborated with David L. Brown, professor of development sociology at Cornell University, on the forthcoming paper, “More than a Rural Revolt: Landscapes of Despair and the 2016 Election,” which will be published in the Journal of Rural Studies. Monnat recently left Penn State to take the Lerner Chair for Public Health Promotion at Syracuse University.

Researchers hope that these efforts will disrupt current opioid use and access in Pennsylvania more effectively. The Social Science Research Institute at Penn State plays a supportive role in their efforts.

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Last Updated October 18, 2017