Fourth-year public health students Amber Moore, Maddie Drenkhan and Vikas Munjal competed and won the College of Public Health’s first-ever case competition on Wednesday, where four teams of undergraduate and graduate students proposed real-life solutions to the opioid crisis in rural Hocking County in southeastern Ohio. Credit: Courtesy of the College of Public Health

Whether it’s called “an American crisis,” “a public health epidemic” or “a nationwide emergency,” the increased abuse of opioids continues to threaten lives in Ohio.

Students at Ohio State took steps to combat this growing problem through the College of Public Health’s first-ever case competition last week. Twelve teams of three undergraduate and graduate students joined to propose real-life solutions to the opioid crisis in rural Hocking County in southeastern Ohio.

Ohio has been one of the states hit hardest by the epidemic, and Hocking County currently views this epidemic as the No. 1 problem affecting their community, said Amber Moore, a fourth-year in public health.

“I think the [opioid crisis] is the HIV version of our lifetime,” said Moore, who won the competition alongside fourth-year public health students Vikas Munjal and Maddie Drenkhan.

In 2016, there were 3,495 unintentional opioid deaths in Ohio, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Hocking County, with 28,000 residents, there were 31 unintentional drug-related deaths between 2011 and 2016. Six of those deaths involved fentanyl, a powerful drug used typically to treat extreme pain. Fentanyl was used in 50 percent of opioid deaths in 2016, according to the CDC.

According to 2016 provisional data by the New York Times, 19 percent of deaths of those aged 15 to 44 in Hocking County are drug-related.

CPH Alumni Society created and hosted the competition to give students a chance to add input to the conversation.

“The opioid epidemic in our city, state and country is a major public health crisis,” said William Martin II, the CPH dean. “This case competition is an opportunity for our brightest public health students to tests theirs skills in finding solutions to a real-life crisis.”

Each team had two weeks to create “intervention strategies” to help rid the county of opioid misuse and opioid-related deaths. At the end of the two weeks, teams introduced their proposals to a panel of one CPH faculty member and two officials from Hocking County that chose a winner by the end of the night.

The winning proposal was centered on awareness and prevention, including community events aimed at educating all ages about the problems surrounding opioids — specifically the importance of high-school education and mental-health support — as well as the best practices for drug use.

Those who attend the event would be given free test strips to check bags of heroin for fentanyl and a free drug called Narcan, a nasal spray used to revive people who overdose.

Though all teams provided different solutions, Moore said she believed her team’s focus on helping mental-illness issues is what sold its proposal.

“Treating mental illnesses will have a drastic reduction in substance abuse,” Moore said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse not only labels drug abuse as a mental illness, but also said that other mental illnesses could lead to self-medication.

With existing drug use and persistent self-medication, drug abuse can become cyclical.

Moore added her time living in Jackson County, which has similar demographics to Hocking County, and her own mental-health experiences led to her participation in the program.

“I actually really, really struggled with my own mental health and I think that that kind of brought me into the world of what it’s like,” Moore said. “I think it showed me the lack of resources that are available and the lack of focus on it.”

Though all of the proposals were hypothetical, the winning group will attend a meeting in January with Hocking County officials to propose their programs in real time, giving Moore, Drenkhan and Munjal an opportunity to see their ideas come to life.

“Students have really good, innovative ideas,” Moore said. “We expect a lot of ideas to come from the top down, but I think a lot of innovation comes from new minds who are approaching it from a different angle.”