December 2, 2020
Addressing Ohio’s Opioid Epidemic with a Culturally Responsive Lens

In the 1980’s when crack cocaine and opioids were devastating urban Black and brown communities, our country responded by declaring a “War on Drugs.” As a result, those suffering from substance use disorders (SUDs) were criminalized, leading to the widespread incarceration of drug users.

Fast forward three decades to present day, where the U.S. is experiencing one of the largest drug epidemics in history and where no racial or ethnic group has been spared from its impact. America’s response is finally shifting to a tone of compassion, one that characterizes addiction for what it truly is – a public health crisis that can be prevented and treated with the appropriate supports.

While much focus has been given to the unanticipated victims of the opioid epidemic – white suburban Americans – the truth is that Black and brown communities are also experiencing the epidemic’s devastating effects. According to recent reports published by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2018, Ohio ranked fourth and fifth in the U.S. for the number of Hispanics and African Americans that died from an opioid-related overdose.

This same report found that death rates involving synthetic opioids have increased by a whopping 818% among the U.S. Black population and 617% among America’s Latino population. The deadly combination of fentanyl laced in common street drugs has greatly contributed to the spike in deaths.

Mental health providers and community advocates alike stress that Ohio’s efforts to combat the opioid epidemic in diverse communities must incorporate a culturally responsive lens. Sociocultural factors coupled with barriers to accessing culturally and linguistically responsive prevention and recovery services all impact the susceptibility to and recovery from opioid addiction.

As Ohio’s minority population continues to increase, the need to adapt services and outreach methods to better meet the needs of a diverse constituency has become more important than ever. Understanding the social determinants of health and key challenges associated with opioid misuse are important to effectively engage diverse communities in prevention and recovery efforts. In the same vein, ignoring cultural context can lead to misunderstandings that breed feelings of disrespect, a lack of hope, and ultimately an unwillingness to engage in treatment.

A holistic approach to treatment and prevention must be implemented in diverse communities. Most importantly, messaging must be tailored to resonate with one’s culture and then communicated by trusted leaders in the community. There are several evidenced-based strategies that SAMHSA recommends for addressing opioid misuse in Black and brown communities.

These strategies include:

  • Forming diverse community partnerships with key leaders and organizations.
  • Engaging churches and other faith-based organizations to provide prevention and recovery support.
  • Utilizing individuals in recovery to spread harm-reduction education rather than first responders, such as police officers.
  • Building trust and relationships with the community through the use of community health workers, particularly those who are bilingual when engaging new American communities.

Ohio must bridge its cultural divide as the lives of our residents depend on it. The Ohio Opioid Education Alliance is committed to forming more diverse partnerships in the coming year to better serve all Ohioans. We hope you will join us in our efforts.