Addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer of lives. No matter the age, social and socioeconomic background or family history, the impacts of substance abuse often has devastating consequences for the addict, their loved ones and the community at large.
While the negative effects of drug addiction are felt strongly throughout the United States, America’s rural populations are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of substance abuse. With a lack of appropriate resources, higher rates of unemployment and an increased availability of prescription painkillers and other drugs, rural drug addiction in the United States has become a serious concern among health professionals.
In a recent article published in Think Progress, Alex Zielinski writes about how the burgeoning heroin and prescription pill epidemic has affected West Virginia. Currently, West Virginia is leading the country in drug overdose deaths, and the crisis is exacting a heavy toll on the state’s rural areas. In rural Boone County, the overdose death rate is currently at 81 per every 100,000 people. By comparison, Kanawha County (which is the state’s most urban county and contains the city of Charleston) has a drug overdose rate of 35 per every 100,000 people.
While the state is seeing an increase in the implementation of syringe exchange programs, these programs are found in urban areas and not in the rural areas. As a result, families who have loved ones addicted to heroin are driving hours to clinics to receive clean needles and other essential care.
Compounding the problem is the state’s crackdown on the physician’s ability to prescribe prescription pain medications. In rural areas, if an addict runs out of painkillers they don’t have the programs and resources in their area that can help them overcome their addiction. As a result, many addicts in rural areas will turn to heroin and they continue in the vicious cycle of addiction.
The problems that are being experienced in West Virginia mirror what is happening nationwide in regards to rural drug addiction. For example, hospitalizations for opioid overdoses had jumped 315 percent in rural areas of Pennsylvania in the past 15 years. In rural areas of Tennessee, some hospitals that serve rural areas estimate they see an average of two to three people a week overdosing from opioid use.
Why the Increase?
There are several reasons that can be pinpointed to why rural drug addiction has become a major health and social issue. First, rural populations are on average older than urban populations. As a result, there may be more chronic pain issues for which the use of prescription painkillers are utilized as part of a pain management program.
Secondly, the types of employment that are available in rural areas are more physically demanding and the risk for injury is greater. Instead of risking job loss, injured employees often rely on these pain medications to numb the problem. Additionally, with the overprescribing of these medications and increased availability in rural areas it can create sizable black markets for these drugs.
Additionally, the influence of family structure may also play a role in rural drug addiction. While rural areas are increasingly being connected to urban areas, there are still substantial differences seen in the social norms, expectations, and cultural values between rural families and urban families. Compared to urban areas, families who live in rural areas place a higher value on community and family.
With these strong ties, economic hardship associated with job restructuring and the migration of youths to urban areas to find employment may generate strain not only in the individual but also in the broader social network itself which can increase the risk for illicit drug use across the entire social structure.
While these factors are indeed important to consider, the growing problem of rural drug addiction comes down to the simple fact of a lack of resources. Many who live in rural areas don’t have access to life-saving medications such as Suboxone, and they generally don’t have the access to healthcare workers and addiction professionals that can help provide the motivation they need to quit. But with many states cutting back on public health funds, getting the appropriate care to rural communities is very difficult.
There is also the added pressure of stigma. Because of the close feeling of community in rural areas, individuals who are suffering from drug addiction may fear going to a doctor or healthcare professional to get help. The main fear is that family, friends and others in the community will talk negatively or judge someone.