Faculty members awarded National Science Foundation Senior Scholar Award to research opioid-affected communities

Faculty members awarded National Science Foundation Senior Scholar Award to research opioid-affected communities

Associate professor Sheryl McCurdy, PhD, and assistant professor Eric Jones, PhD, have been awarded a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Senior Scholar Award for their study, “Addiction, Mutual Aid Networks, and the Navigation of Care Systems.” The study will be conducted in Western Tanzania and aims to understand how people affected by opioids create new ways of caring for and relating to each other. Findings will be used to inform potential intervention models for supportive care networks for harm reduction and in the US.

The opioid epidemic exposes how people suffering from addiction can place a strain on communities who care for them, such as family members or other individuals in their social circles. This strain often leads to inadequate support of affected individuals, leaving them in a vulnerable state. “A whole range of things can happen,” explains McCurdy, “Not only can the family networks get smaller, but sometimes the family itself can exacerbate the addiction. That’s one thing we want to look at: how do changes in expectations and obligations between family members create new ways of interacting?”

McCurdy and Jones believe that the opportunity for affected individuals to find adequate support lies in the nexus of formal and informal social systems. Jones explains that the culture of opioid use in Western Tanzania is a social one, with users often participating in groups or clubs—sometimes referred to by academics as mutual aid societies or mutual aid networks. This consistent group activity generates responsibilities within the affected communities, such as opioid procurement or reliance on a member for income.

For these communities, this is one way in which “care” manifests.

“We’re interested in what care means: What does it mean to an opioid-affected individual? What does it mean to a member of the mutual-aid network? And how are ideas about ‘care’ changing?” explains McCurdy.

McCurdy and Jones lay the basis of how to properly conduct this study by asking two guiding questions:

  1. “How do the dynamics of shifting family support influence the decisions and behavior of individuals affected by opioid addiction?” and,
  2. “What differences are seen in mutual aid associations compared with other networks in care practices, relationships, and experiences?”

To answer these questions, the pair will employ various methods like systematic observations and interviews about care practices in network interactions.

“In this kind of research, we look at an individual’s social world or their personal network to understand the ways the other people in that individual’s social world relate to each other,” says Jones, who also worked with McCurdy on another NSF Hurricane Harvey project that looked at social support in decision making. “When we measure the ties between these people, a spiderweb-like network is revealed and captures key players, dynamics and constraints in the examined social world. When put next to the individual’s behaviors or outcomes, opportunities for care are exposed.”

Results from this study will provide insights into how mutual aid organizations replace or supplement care from family, that could lead to new ways to reduce harm that can have an influence on opioid policy and caregiving. Moreover, the intersections of formal care networks with the relationships with family and non-family

Read the full abstract and NSF award description here.

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