Research and Impact

OHIO researchers join statewide effort to combat mental health, substance use epidemic

A team of researchers from Ohio University is joining a statewide initiative to identify the leading causes of mental health challenges, suicide, and substance use disorder in Ohio communities.

The research effort is associated with the Institute to Advance Health Equity (ADVANCE), a multidisciplinary group on campus that promotes social science and health services research to address health disparities in Southeast Ohio.

Cory Cronin, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Health Sciences and Professions and co-director of ADVANCE, said the institute serves as a way for scholars from different backgrounds to collaborate on health research.

“It came out of a recognition that health is such a wide, broad topic,” Cronin said. “People across the university are doing work in it, and we don’t know about each other doing that work.”

“We are purposely aiming to help people meet each other, strengthen each other's work, and collaborate if that’s appropriate,” Cronin said.

Ohio University is one of several academic institutions contributing to the State of Ohio Adversity and Resilience (SOAR), a study focusing on mental health, addiction and resilience. 

In addition to Cronin, the team contributing to this study consists of Paula Miller, Graciela Muniz-Terrera, Jean Forney, Jennifer Grant, Steven Evans and Brian Wymbs. It is further supported by the broader ADVANCE team, including co-director Berkeley Franz, Ph.D., of the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. 

Directed by The Ohio State University College of Medicine and Wexner Medical Center, SOAR will study families across generations to understand how they both experience and recover from health challenges over time.

Over the past decade, Ohio has experienced a surge in mental health issues, substance abuse disorders, and related health challenges, like other states across the nation.

According to SOAR, the state witnessed a 300 percent increase in overdose deaths since 2010, with more than 5,000 intentional overdose deaths in 2022 alone. 

Additionally, the Ohio Department of Health estimates five Ohioans die by suicide each day.

In response to this alarming trend, Ohio. Gov Mike DeWine announced SOAR in January highlighting the need for a comprehensive shift in the state’s approach toward mental health and substance use disorders. This new research initiative was launched with an initial funding of $20 million from the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Currently, SOAR is gathering data from thousands of Ohioans across the state through wellness and brain health surveys.

“If we are looking to change some things around health, we need this type of data to know geographically where to invest or by demographic characteristics where to invest,” Cronin said.

“It doesn't mean all those investments pan out into things changing drastically. But without the data, I know we're making guesses where to invest,” he added.

Cronin said Ohio University will play a crucial role in the study by reaching communities in Southeast Ohio, a distinct region situated within Appalachia.

“I think Ohio University was of particular importance to [SOAR] because the southeast corner of the state is geographically not very dense,” Cronin said.

“I think it’s really important that research is coming out of here, not only being done on this place,” he added.

Other researchers with ADVANCE are hoping to challenge misconceptions about Appalachia through research.

Paula Miller, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, recently joined ADVANCE to research racially and ethnically marginalized communities in the region.

“In Appalachia, there's a perception of it being a majority White space, which is not necessarily the truth,” Miller said. 

She said understanding Appalachia’s unique history will be crucial in fostering health equity.

“There's also such a strong history of social organizing in Appalachia, across racial lines,” Miller said. “I think looking into that and then thinking about how we can foster that contemporarily is one of the things that could really help with health equity.”

Miller and other researchers at ADVANCE believe fostering community connections in the region is the first step in collecting meaningful and accurate data. 

Through collaborative research and a commitment to health equity, ADVANCE hopes to pave the way for a brighter, more resilient future for all Ohioans.

“The value comes in this being the starting point and us being able to watch both how people’s behaviors and outcomes change over time,” Cronin said. “The piece I’m interested in is how communities and community assets and resources shift over time.”

March 13, 2024
Trenton Straight MA ’25