By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Dr. Melissa Fry, IU Southeast associate professor of sociology and director of the Applied Research Education Center (AREC), has co-authored an article detailing how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable individuals: those with substance use disorders.
The article, in the online issue of The Conversation (www.theconversation.com), builds on research undertaken as part of the Indiana University Grand Challenges grant received by Fry and her colleagues, primary investigator Dr. Melissa Cyders of IUPUI and Dr. Kevin Ladd of IU South Bend. Critical contributions are being made by Katie Shircliff ’18, an IU Southeast Chancellor’s Medallion recipient and study coordinator at IUPUI.
The project looks at challenges facing those recovering from opioid addiction. The research team expanded the project’s original focus to seek to understand how people with these substance use disorders are managing their recovery during the coronavirus pandemic, complete with its massive lifestyle changes.
The team found that the coronavirus pandemic is adding to already daunting challenges for these individuals.
For one, they are more vulnerable to infection from COVID-19 and its complications, due to preexisting conditions such as chronic respiratory illness, and to heightened risk factors such as joblessness, homelessness, incarceration and stress.
“The added stress contributes to feelings of loneliness, frustration and hopelessness,” the researchers write. “Stress can exacerbate substance cravings and contribute to relapse.”
Relapse can also result when medical and psychological care, along with support networks, are reduced or shut down.
“When people with opioid use disorder relapse, there’s more involved than a loss of sobriety,” the authors note. “Often there is a loss of life.”
When the pandemic became a full-blown public health crisis, Shircliff and IUPUI graduate students were already performing intake and follow-up interviews with those receiving services at project partner sites, Fairbanks in Indianapolis and LifeSpring in southern Indiana. Together with Cyders, Shircliff developed a new questionnaire to capture impacts of the virus. Their study team spoke with 45 adults between the ages of 28 and 73 during March and April of this year. Follow-up interviews continue to add to the data set.
Fry sees immense value in using the current moment to build knowledge that can help in recovery today, as well as in strategizing for recovery in less trying times ahead.
“We knew we needed to document the impacts or probable impacts of the pandemic on our multi-year study, but we also saw a very immediate need to use our relationship with the population to shed light on the particular needs of the recovery community during the pandemic,” Fry said.
The Grand Challenge opioid recovery research project will continue for several more years, and Fry expects the information derived from the questionnaire and interviews to contribute significantly to the reach and impact of that study.
“By adding questions about COVID and continuing to collect data from people in recovery during this difficult time, our project will add to our understanding of resilience factors, recovery support and relapse, and will expand our understanding of distinctions between opioids and other drugs when it comes to recovery.”
Schircliff’s role has been critical, according to Fry.
She began working on the project during her senior year at IU Southeast, coordinating and running focus groups through AREC. After graduation, she was hired as the project coordinator at IUPUI, and now works directly with participants as well as managing logistics. She coordinates over a dozen focus groups, schedules and runs interviews, visits local treatment centers to recruit for the study, organizes and analyzes data, and ensures that the study follows protocols and meets deadlines.
“I hope that the information we learn from our participants will be used to better educate the community, reduce stigma and increase supports for long-term recovery,” Shircliff said.
By bringing the study to the attention of The Conversation, a site that makes academic news articles available to mass-market media outlets, Fry hopes to make a wider audience aware of this important research.
“Our three-campus rural-to-urban community collaboration to develop vital research to address the opioid epidemic is precisely the kind of work the Grand Challenge program was designed to support,” Fry said.