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Study: Opioid Crisis Worst in Troubled Rural Areas and Cities

West Virginia had the nation's worst rate of opioid deaths in 2016, and the worst rate of deaths from prescription and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, in 2017. (alarsenault/Pixabay)
West Virginia had the nation's worst rate of opioid deaths in 2016, and the worst rate of deaths from prescription and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, in 2017. (alarsenault/Pixabay)
March 4, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – While the opioid crisis has touched West Virginians from all walks of life, new research finds some communities are more vulnerable than others.

To better understand how the opioid epidemic has unfolded, sociologist Shannon Monnat, an assistant professor at Syracuse University, examined the national drug mortality rates of non-Hispanic whites.

She says contrary to common belief, drug mortality rates are higher in urban areas than rural counties. However, there is wide variation.

"It is the case that some rural places in the U.S. have the very highest overdose mortality rates, but some rural places have the very lowest,” she explains. “So, it's really kind of a tale of two rural Americas."

Monnat points out higher rates of drug deaths were concentrated either in economically distressed mining communities, or those dependent on service sector jobs.

"In addition to opioid supply measures, economic distress measures really matter in explaining why some places have higher overdose rates than others," she states.

According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, last year West Virginia had the nation's worst rate of deaths from prescription and synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.

Monnat says intergenerational poverty, hard manual labor, as well as the loss of manufacturing and mining industries, have contributed to higher rates of opioid abuse in some rural communities.

"For a lot of people, those institutions of work and the family have unraveled over the past 30 years, and it's left some people with little meaning in their lives,” she states. “And drugs are one way to escape that emotional pain or a way to escape or the reality of a lack of connection or a purpose in life."

Monnat contends these economic and social factors must be taken into account when considering solutions.

"And intervention efforts have to be specifically targeted to certain regions, labor markets, and populations,” she stresses. “Otherwise, those efforts are not going to be effective."

Monnat adds that future research into health-related measures and civic engagement could help determine if some communities are at greater risk as well.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV