They cried as they talked about their drug addictions, tears flowing as they waded through their guilt at the pain and turmoil they had caused their families and friends.

They cried as they confronted the waste they’d made of their lives and relived some of the horrific childhood neglect and physical abuse that contributed to their initial drug use. But when they were told they could stop talking, could stop dredging up the memories making them cry, they declined.

“Our first priority was their well-being, so we would offer to stop their interview,” says Rick Dierenfeldt, assistant professor of criminal justice and a member of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Social, Cultural and Justice Studies. “But each of them insisted on continuing. You really got the sense that it mattered to them that someone was just willing to listen to them.

“And there was a selflessness about so many of them, too. As we finished the surveys and thanked them for their time, I lost count of the number of people who thanked us for what we were doing and expressed hope that, even if they did not benefit from the study, that other people would.”

In spring 2019, Dierenfeldt and three others in the Social, Cultural and Justice Studies department received a $50,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Human Services to study drug abuse in rural communities. Working in tandem with the Southeast Tennessee Human Resource Agency, they traveled to three rural counties in Tennessee, where they interviewed 166 people convicted of drug crimes, hoping to get a better handle on the rural drug crisis.

“At this point, I think everyone is very aware of the fact that meth and heroin have swept through rural communities like wildfires,” Dierenfeldt says. “We see the deterioration within the community that comes with these kinds of drug markets—the loss of jobs and income, the closure of businesses, the increase in peripheral crimes and, really, the feeling that you are losing your community and the bonds within it.”

The opioid crisis in Tennessee is so acute that Randy Boyd, interim president of the University of Tennessee system, set up an Opioid Addiction and Response (SOAR) summit in early August to address the issue. Among the attendees were doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, faith-based leaders, public health experts and addiction survivors. “I was blown away by the magnitude and depth of discussions that we had regarding this important issue,” Boyd wrote after the summit. “Society has harshly judged those who do suffer from addiction, but addiction is not a moral failure.”

While there can be a stereotypical view that people with drug addictions bring it on themselves because they’re too weak or lazy or lack self-control, the situation is far more complex than simple explanations can cover. “It’s easy to place blame entirely on the person and their choices, but at some point we must begin to recognize that all choices depend on context. They don’t occur in a vacuum,” Dierenfeldt says.

“Nearly all of our offenders have experienced at least one adverse experience during childhood and most experienced several, things like verbal, psychological and physical abuse while growing up in a household marked by domestic violence. Parental incarceration, drug and alcohol abuse and broken families are big contributors as well.”

Among those interviewed:

  • 88 percent had used methamphetamine, 72 percent
  • non-prescribed opioids, 39 percent heroin.
  • More than half said that, when they were children,
  • they saw their parents using drugs.
  • More than one-third said they’d been physically abused.
  • More than 20 percent had been sexually victimized
  • as children, including half of the females.
  • About 75 percent suffered from at least one diagnosable mental health problem.

They also discovered that nearly half of those interviewed had no access to a vehicle, making it almost impossible to look for work or, if they had a job, be able to get there on time. Lack of transportation makes it difficult to access any community-based services such as substance abuse or mental health groups, job skills training or anger management counseling. “Given the lack of access they have to appropriate services, considered in tandem with the experiences many of them faced as children, street drugs become a coping mechanism,” Dierenfeldt says.

“The reality is that drugs are symptomatic of other problems in these communities and the lives of the people within them,” he says, so his study was “about identifying those problems.

“Like any other disease, you cannot effectively treat until you accurately diagnose.”

The ultimate goal, Dierenfeldt adds, is to understand which services are available to drug offenders in rural communities, from the services they actually used to the ones they thought would help but didn’t. “I’m not sure I would call it surprising, but it was certainly disheartening to find that rehabilitative services are generally lacking for these folks,” Dierenfeldt says. “Most have access to basic medical services and church services, but that’s it.”


Media Relations Contacts: Email UTC Media Relations or call 423-425-5119.

Shawn Ryan is the executive staff writer in the Office of Communications and Marketing at UTC.

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