In rural America, religious attendance reduces compassion regarding opioids

A new study from the Annenberg School for Communication finds that religious individuals in Appalachian and Midwestern states were more likely to support punitive drug policies.

Estimates suggest that 1.7 million people in the United States suffer from opioid-related substance abuse disorders and approximately 50,000 people die each year from an opioid-related overdose. The opioid epidemic is a widespread crisis, but rural areas—particularly those in Appalachian and Midwestern states—have been the hardest hit. However, many individuals in those same states do not support policies scientifically proven to help, like medically aided treatment and syringe exchanges.

empty street of a small town Main Street with a church on one side of the street.

A new study from the Social Action Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication found that individuals in rural areas of Appalachia and the Midwest who regularly attend religious services were more likely to support punitive drug policies and less likely to support policies that aid people who use drugs. They were also more likely to support the same policies as those they perceived their religious leaders supported, whether punitive or supportive. The findings suggest that religious leaders, if persuaded of the benefits of policies that aid people with a substance use disorder, could influence the general population’s opinion toward those measures.

“Many religious communities have either disapproved of or overtly repudiated protective drug policies, like medication–assisted treatment, retail access to syringes, or syringe exchange programs,” says Dolores Albarracín, Alexandra Heyman Nash University Professor and Director of the Social Action Lab. “This is largely because they interpret substance use as a moral failure rather than a disease and see these kinds of programs as enabling drug use. Our study supports this hypothesis, but it also indicates that religious leaders could be mobilized to support protective and efficacious drug policy to curb the opioid epidemic.”

Albarracín and her co-authors surveyed over 3,000 people from 14 states, including Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Participants were asked questions about their own alcohol and drug use; their attitudes toward alcohol and drug use, social support, public policy, and mental health; and attitudes and resources within their communities. They were also asked about their religious affiliation, their religious service attendance, and their religious leaders’ attitudes about drug use and public policy.

This story is by Ashton Yount. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.