COLUMBUS — More than 4,300 Ohioans died of drug overdoses in 2016.
That’s nearly the size of this year’s freshman class at Ohio University.
That’s more than the number of graduates who received diplomas at Ohio State University’s fall commencement last month.
That’s almost double the entire undergraduate population at Otterbein University.
As the state and nation continue to grapple with a deadly opioid epidemic, higher education institutions in Ohio are hoping they can help work toward a solution.
“We’ve really made it a focus, just because the issue is so incredibly profound,” said Randy Leite, dean of Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions. “We have, I would say, a moral obligation to try to respond to it.”
Last year, OU’s health sciences college launched Athens HOPE, a task force to fight the opioid epidemic through prevention and education. The group brings together local health and hospital officials, recovery-services personnel, leaders of local governments, law enforcement agencies and the Athens school district, and other community stakeholders to educate people about opioids, strengthen the community to support those in recovery, and coordinate local services and resources.
The school also is sponsoring a team in the Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge, a state program offering money to attract ideas to help stem the crisis.
Last fall, Ohio State announced a new Opioid Innovation Fund, making more than $1 million in grants available to teams of Ohio State faculty members and students to submit proposals intended to ease Ohio’s burden from the crisis.
The idea came about after a similar effort by the university to cross colleges and disciplines to generate ideas about water quality after Toledo’s 2014 water crisis that resulted from toxic algae in Lake Erie, said Bruce McPheron, Ohio State executive vice president and provost.
In addition to the innovation fund, Ohio State has created a Drug Enforcement and Policy Center and a number of other campuswide initiatives to address the crisis.
Elsewhere in central Ohio, Otterbein University is submitting a proposal for a grant that would help raise awareness about the misuse of prescription drugs and the addiction that can result.
Capital University has hosted several information sessions and panels with community partners about the crisis.
Many of these efforts are in addition to programs already in place at universities to educate students about addiction and provide them with resources for fighting or treating addiction, such as Ohio State’s Collegiate Recovery Community that supports addicted students or those seeking recovery.
Higher education leaders hope to collaborate. Ohio University and the University of Toledo recently entered into a partnership — the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health — to share research on health matters. The opioid epidemic is one of the partnership’s priorities.
OU also has joined the Ohio River Valley Addiction Research Consortium, a group of Appalachian universities focused on drug-addiction research.
Higher education institutions are in a prime position to take a stab at a problem that is killing Ohioans and shattering families, leaders say.
“The university is really well-poised to take these great ideas by great thinkers and actually give our faculty and, in many cases, students, an outlet to see their creative ideas, their research, thoughts, actually begin to have a direct impact,” Ohio State’s McPheron said.
Everyone has a role in prevention, said Marcie Seidel, executive director at Prevention Action Alliance, a nonprofit Columbus prevention agency. Involving colleges is “a tremendous idea,” she said.
“There is a lot of research that needs to be done around this,” Seidel said. “No one’s better equipped to do it than our talented universities.”
OU’s Leite agreed that universities and colleges have both the social and human capital to solve complex problems, citing their brain power and their strong research backgrounds.
“Everyone knows it’s a problem,” he said of the opioid crisis. “Higher education should be a part of the solution. If we’re not part of solving the state’s problems, we’re not achieving our fullest potential.”