The latest episode of the "Growing Impact" podcast explores the world of substance use and addiction through the lens of environmental disasters. Social Science Research Institute cofund Kristina Brant and her team are investigating how flooding in rural areas can affect drug use and what support is needed by those impacted by substance use disorder. The project, titled “Exploring the Impacts of Flooding Events on Substance Use in Rural Appalachia,” is designed to provide data that can raise awareness of the challenges and improve the resilience of communities hit the hardest by flooding and substance use, Brant said.
“When I was in graduate school, I moved to eastern Kentucky, which is part of what we often call central Appalachia,” said Brant, an assistant professor of rural sociology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “This is an area long entrenched in concentrated poverty in large part because of these cycles of exploitation from the coal industry.”
Brant said the opioid crisis in many ways began in central Appalachia.
“Places such as eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia were dominated by the coal industry for a very long time,” she said. “In the early 2000s, the coal jobs started to disappear. Additionally, the people who were losing coal jobs were often individuals who had developed long-term illnesses and chronic pain.”
Because of a lack of health care in rural places, especially in central Appalachia, chronic illnesses would fester and worsen. To address this problem, doctors began to prescribe opioids in the early 2000s.
“By 2010, things started to change, and doctors and pharmaceutical companies decreased the availability of opioids and reformulated many medications,” Brant said. “However, getting pills off the street made people turn to substances that were more dangerous, which is what started to make the overdose rate skyrocket.”
In the spring of 2021, eastern Kentucky was hit with extreme flooding. At the time, Brant was living in the area, and she witnessed how social service organizations had to quickly adapt to triage the impacts of the floods. The following year, before the damage from the first flood could be fully repaired, a second flood hit — this one far more intense than the first. Brant, who by then had moved to central Pennsylvania, started to see emails and social media posts about her former community struggling to survive this second round of flooding.
“People believe that these floods are not going to go away,” Brant said. “This is something, because of changing weather patterns, that's going to continue. What could be the long-term impacts of this on people's lives, especially people who use drugs? Those observations from my time in central Appalachia are how this project was born."
Brant said that the floods impacted people across economic status, just like the opioid crisis. But in both situations, the people that are most impacted tend to be the most disadvantaged.
“Community, state and federal governments need to think about how to help communities become more resilient to these environmental hazards,” she said. “My hope is that I can help show the connection between these events and substance use so that, as we think about helping communities become more resilient, we can also think about how we can save lives when it comes to substance use in the face of flooding.”
Brant is working with Sarah Kawasaki, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, and Zhen Lei, an associate professor in the John and Willie Leone Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering.
Growing Impact is a podcast by the Institutes of Energy and the Environment (IEE). It features Penn State researchers who have been awarded IEE seed grants and discusses their foundational work as they further their projects. The podcast is available on multiple platforms, including Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify.