Ohio State University Extension, with deep roots in Ohio's 88 counties, is uniquely situated to respond to the crisis at the community level.
The toll of Ohio’s opioid crisis is painfully evident as Misty Harmon travels around Perry County, where she has lived her entire life. Tiny towns such as Shawnee and Hemlock, where she spent her childhood, were vibrant years ago, with carry-outs and mom-and-pop businesses lining the main drag. “Those things aren’t there now. You don’t see kids out playing. You don’t see kids running around. You don’t see people out,” she says. “It’s pretty devastating.”
Harmon’s love for home fuels her role as a family and consumer sciences educator for Ohio State University Extension, a “jack-of-all-trades” job that takes her to schools, libraries, community agencies and meeting rooms throughout Perry and nearby counties. A year ago, she was certified as a mental health first aid instructor, putting her on the front lines of the opioid crisis.
“The way mental health first aid can help with the opioid issue is by teaching people it’s OK to seek help,” Harmon says. In advocating such assistance, Harmon is one link in a chain binding her home county to Extension’s resources and aid.
Harmon is among 215 educators working throughout Ohio as part of Extension, which has offices in each of the state’s 88 counties. “They’re the boots on the ground,” says Ken Martin, Extension’s associate director of programs and department chair.
Ohio State University Extension has been connecting with communities and families as part of its outreach mission since 1914. Today, it employs 700 people statewide, including 75 faculty members (about half of whom work off campus).
“Our purpose is to bring the resources of the university to bear on the issues and challenges facing the people of Ohio,” says Roger Rennekamp, Extension’s associate dean and director.
Two years ago, a state advisory committee suggested that Extension — historically associated with agriculture — was well suited to help address the state’s opioid epidemic. Extension has responded throughout Ohio with faculty and other educators lending expertise and resources from across the university. The result is Buckeyes aiding individuals, families, local coalitions and task forces to address an epidemic that knows no bounds. “An awful lot of the work we’re doing is particularly upstream in the area of prevention,” Rennekamp says.
Generation Rx is one example. Extension and the College of Pharmacy work together to arm communities with knowledge on the proper use of prescription drugs. Extension also hosts educational gatherings for experts, teens and school administrators, teachers and staff. The goal is to prevent drug abuse and empower people to intervene when they recognize it in their homes and communities.
Educators such as Harmon contribute valuable local relationships and a personal touch built on local insight — and often deep family roots. With 22 years of experience as an exercise physiologist, Harmon knows how depression, anxiety and other mental health issues relate to poor physical health and addiction, which often comes with stigma.
“We need to break down barriers that prevent people from getting treatment for mental health issues before they turn to substances or self-medicate,” she says.