University of Nebraska researchers are joining efforts to raise awareness among rural agricultural workers about substance and prescription drug use, particularly about opioids. By raising awareness, researchers hope to influence behavior change to improve the health and safety of agricultural workers.

Until recently, Nebraska was at the bottom of the list of states with opioid overdose deaths, but according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, drug overdose deaths in Nebraska are increasing, said Shinobu Watanabe-Galloway, Ph.D., co-principal investigator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.

It’s estimated that 20 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder related to alcohol or illicit drugs. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported rising death rates among working age rural adults due to prescription drug misuse and heroin abuse.

Researchers at UNMC, the University of Nebraska at Kearney and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension will implement a $20,000 pilot study to try to determine the risk level of opioid and alcohol misuse among adults 19 years and older in rural Nebraska communities. They also will determine the feasibility of intervening using an anonymous, self-screening questionnaire.

The study team will use a voluntary, anonymous, self-screening questionnaire at 12 community events held over 18 months with the goal of completing more than 300 screenings. The tool, which is not a clinical diagnosis, takes five to 10 minutes to complete on paper or through a link access on a mobile phone

The research team includes: Christine Chasek, Ph.D., co- principal investigator, University of Nebraska Kearney Department of Counseling and School Psychology; Susan Harris-Broomfield, University of Nebraska Lincoln Extension; and Chandran Achutan, Ph.D., UNMC College of Public Health Department of Environmental, Agricultural & Occupational Health.

Dr. Watanabe-Galloway said she and her colleagues anecdotally hear about substance abuse issues in rural populations from rural health professionals, but researchers need to conduct a study to determine its actual prevalence.

“We are interested in creating awareness in communities about the risks as well as identifying the resources for those who need help,” Dr. Watanabe-Galloway said. “Not being aware of the risk of dependence on opioids is part of the problem, but a lot of people are not aware, especially in rural areas.”

Another goal of the study is to work with rural health and policy professionals to design evidenced-based interventions that prevent opioid addiction, treat those addicted and prevent death from overdose.