Southern Connecticut State prof to research opioid use in New Haven suburbs

This story was originally published in the New Haven Register and was written by Esteban L. Hernandez. Photo credit: Isabel Chenoweth/SCSU.

NEW HAVEN >> Questions remain on how opioids creep into neighborhoods that historically have never experienced large-scale drug epidemics.

Southern Connecticut State University assistant professor of public health Aukje Lamonica believes this lack of answers partially can be attributed to drug research that often focuses on poor, urban communities, and not suburban areas, which also have been affected by the current opioid crisis. The crisis likely is connected to the increase in prescription painkillers provided to patients starting in the late 1990s, experts have said.

Answering some of these questions is motivating Lamonica to conduct federally-funded research on how opioids are affecting suburban communities, including in Greater New Haven.

“We haven’t really looked at the suburbs,” Lamonica said. “That’s why we’re conducting this study in all the suburbs.”

Lamonica is working with Bentley University associate professor of sociology Miriam Boeri on the project, which is funded by a $340,000 National Institutes of Health grant the two received in March. Their research will focus on New Haven, Boston and Atlanta suburbs. Lamonica specializes in social determinants of drug use and addiction.

Atlanta was used because of the experience with the city that the two researchers have. Boeri said she has been doing research in Atlanta for more than 20 years and wanted to compare the cities to compare access to services between the two regions.

Their research will focus how opioid users, such as those using heroin or prescription painkillers, begin using these drugs and explore how users shift to other opioids or drugs. Lamonica said their research is an ethnographic study, involving one-on-one interviews that will include follow-up conversations. The researchers’ goal will be to learn more about patterns leading to opioid use among suburban residents.

“Are they sitting in their homes? Are we talking street use? Is it pain that sets them off initially, or something else? Are there underlining mental (health) issues?” Lamonica said, posing some of the questions of her research.

The impact of the opioid crisis can be measured in numerous ways, though one statistic often used as a metric of its impact is fatal overdoses, which have increased steadily in Connecticut every year since at least 2012. At least 917 people died of fatal drug overdoses last year, up 25 percent from 2015. Nationwide, there were more than 33,000 fatal opioid overdoses in the country in 2015 alone.

Lamonica said the two researchers recently received a supplement to the grant that will allow them to purchase the opioid overdose antidote medication naloxone. Having the medication will mean Lamonica and Boeri will be able to hand it out to people they interview. Ideally, she said she would like to give out two naloxone doses to everyone she interviews.

“I was really interested in that,” Lamonica said. “Not only are we in the field collecting these stories which are obviously important, but we’re also able to help immediately by having naloxone.”

Sixty people will be interviewed in Greater New Haven. Lamonica said she’s most interested in speaking to current users from towns such as Branford, East Haven, Hamden, North Haven, Orange, West Haven and Woodbridge. She is hoping to begin her research next week.

“That’s a whole different group of users,” Lamonica said, of the target subjects of the research. “We’re really looking at the people who may have (a) job (commuting) to New Haven, coming from a suburban background.”

Lamonica said interviews are anonymous. Participants are paid.

“We really try to protect our participants because of the often illegal nature of their drug use,” Lamonica said.

Individuals interested in participating in Lamonica’s study are encouraged to call her office at 203-392-6913.

Reach Esteban L. Hernandez at 203-680-9901.