‘Meet people where they are’

Students, faculty work to destigmatize drug use, create empathy and save lives

Anthony Rodriguez
Students, faculty use harm reduction to destigmatize drug use

As part of ongoing work to combat overdose deaths, Ohio State students, including several from the College of Public Health, went to work this spring to educate the Ohio State community about how to stay safe if they use drugs, and how to help others who might be in harm’s way.

Buckeyes for Harm Reduction, a student organization focused on combatting the opioid crisis in Ohio, helped educate their peers and taught them how they can take action during the group’s annual Harm Reduction Week project in March.

“The main [goal] of harm reduction is to meet people where they are and public health is in direct correlation with that,” said Dana Oehme, a second-year student majoring in environmental public health.

The opioid epidemic is claiming a growing number of lives, particularly in Ohio, where the powerful opioid fentanyl was involved in 81% of overdose deaths recorded in Ohio in 2020, according to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Health. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Public education and tools to prevent overdoses — in particular, the overdose reversal drug Narcan, known generically as naloxone — has been of critical importance in saving lives. Oehme and Laura Powers, a public health sociology major, said they’ve appreciated being able to help others through their work with Buckeyes for Harm Reduction.

Through naloxone trainings and other education events, Buckeyes for Harm Reduction has helped students and others recognize the signs of drug overdose and how to administer naloxone to save lives. As of late March, the group had helped the Ohio State Wellness Center distribute more than 1,150 naloxone kits this academic year.

College of Public Health faculty also are playing a role in the effort. Ayaz Hyder, assistant professor of environmental sciences, uses data “to help decision makers make the best decisions possible” to address the opioid epidemic, he said. 

His research has helped identify treatment recovery deserts that are helping health departments locate where new facilities can best serve their communities. 

His research team is also developing a secure network of data for health departments and their partners to use to create impactful opioid policy and planning initiatives.

The growing work of students educating their peers on campus and public health researchers getting tools out into Ohio communities is helping destigmatize drug use and get help to the people who need it, Hyder said.

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