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Planting seeds for a safe and healthy society

A new West Virginia University research collaborative is working to address the many challenging conditions facing the state and Appalachia.

In the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Interdisciplinary Research Collaborative for a Safe and Healthy Society, researchers from a wide range of disciplines are working together with partners across campus to seek solutions to these pressing issues.

"The researchers’ commitment to confronting real-world problems speaks to their dedication to the University’s land-grant mission," said Gregory Dunaway, dean of the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. "I’m proud to see Eberly College faculty and our WVU colleagues take the lead in research that could transform the health and well-being of communities in Appalachia and beyond."

The collaborative brings together faculty, staff and students who work in communities around the state in areas like community development, substance use prevention and treatment, drug policy, healthcare policy, medical sociology and crime. 

“It is an honor to coordinate the work of the collaborative. By forging relationships across the Eberly College and the University, we can harness the collective expertise of the faculty,” said Helen Hartnett, professor of social work and a leadership fellow in the Eberly College’s Office of the Dean. “I believe this is necessary if we are to address the complex challenges faced by communities today”.  

The collaborative’s first initiative is a seed grant program funded by the Eberly College Office of the Dean and WVU Extension Service to support related research activities through interdisciplinary collaboration. Five projects were awarded for 2020. 

Crime and guardianship

The Department of Sociology and Anthropology’s Karen Weiss and James Nolan as well as WVU Extension Service’s Jason Rine and Nila Cobb are teaming up to study crime and guardianship in communities.

Through a survey, the research team will measure the frequency of crime and its impacts on residents in West Virginia communities as well as the community dynamics surrounding those events. They hope to gauge residents’ perceptions of illicit drug use and abuse, an ongoing problem in many West Virginia communities today. The survey will also measure residents’ responses to crime, including calling police, to understand the impact of informal guardianship on community safety.

Stigmas of harm reduction

The Department of Communication Studies’ Katie Kang as well as Steve Davis and Danielle Davidov from the School of Public Health are seeking to reduce stigmas surrounding the state’s harm-reduction programs.

The programs offer clean syringes, naloxone and infection testing. Public health officials consider them to be some of the most effective interventions for West Virginia’s substance use epidemic. However, health departments in Kanawha and Harrison counties recently shut down their harm reduction programs due to misconceptions that they increase crime, promote drug use and attract homeless individuals to these communities. The research team intends to bring together stakeholders from medicine, public health and communication to investigate these misconceptions and find innovative ways to offer these resources.

Assessing risk for suicide and depression

The School of Social Work’s Mary LeCloux is collaborating with Assistant Professor of Statistics Stacey Culp and John Campo from the School of Medicine to examine primary care providers’ processes for screening patients’ risk for suicide and depression. 

LeCloux’s previous research shows that few providers in West Virginia routinely screen for suicide or have a standardized protocol for doing so. The team plans to use data from the current study to support a multisite clinical trial evaluating the long-term effectiveness of a universal suicide risk screening intervention in rural Ohio and West Virginia.

Raising awareness of cancer care

In the U.S., breast cancer is the most common cancer among women and affects approximately one in every eight, according to the American Cancer Society. Yet, Appalachian women are less likely to be screened, despite access to primary care physicians and mobile screening programs like WVU Medicine’s Bonnie’s Bus. 

The Department of Communication Studies’ Daniel Totzkay and Department of Sociology and Anthropology’s Susanna Donaldson hope to identify sociological, cultural and communication barriers preventing and disrupting access to cancer screening and healthcare for women in Appalachia. Using both surveys and interviews, they plan to make recommendations for the region’s healthcare providers to help them improve patient awareness of resources available in the region. 

Building healthy communities 

As the state continues to navigate away from its historically extraction-based economy, other forms of community capital – the combined resources made by people, nature and society – are changing as well. The Department of Public Administration’s Margaret Stout and WVU Extension Service’s Daniel Eades are embarking on a long-term benchmarking study to identify the social, economic and environmental factors that help West Virginia communities thrive. They plan to build a cross-disciplinary research team to identify and prioritize a set of indicators for communities to use as they design programs and conduct evaluations.

All of these research projects will begin in spring 2020.

“These projects begin to address a wide range of problems that are affecting our community,” said Duncan Lorimer, the Eberly College’s associate dean for research. “We are optimistic that they will lead to externally funded tasks in the future that will take advantage of the research expertise that we have in the Eberly College.”