The State of Addiction in Native American Communities

The increase in drug and alcohol-related deaths among Native American Indians and Alaskan Natives (AIAN) has been on a steady increase for decades. An increase in opioid abuse in youth AIAN members is especially alarming. There are an estimated two million people from the AIAN community living across the U.S. Within that two million, there are about 300 different tribes and language groups. Historically, AIAN communities have struggled disproportionately with health and social issues compared to other ethnic and racial groups in America. Access to comprehensive behavioral health treatment for substance abuse and mental health disorders is among some of the most underdeveloped and overlooked.

A Native American dream catcher blowing in the wind represents the state of addiction in Native American communities.

History of addiction in Native American communities

Between 2013 and 2017, the highest related drug deaths came from members of the AIAN community. In 2019, researchers found that alcohol-related deaths within the AIAN community were five times higher than the general American population. In a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid-related overdose deaths in the AIAN communities have seen a significant increase between the years 2010 to 2020.

In a study on alcohol and related conditions, the National Epidemiologic Survey found that an estimated 70% of AIAN men and 63% of AIAN women met the criteria for having a mental health disorder. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorders (SUD) often go hand in hand with other mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. It is likely that if a person suffers from a mental health disorder, they are also suffering from a drug and alcohol addiction.

Despite the research and studies collected on the behavioral health of AIAN communities, much of the data is likely to be grossly misrepresented and underrepresented. The improbability of data ranges by as much as 35%. This is due to a number of factors, which sometimes include the general misclassification of people in the AIAN community.

Data on AIAN community members are often missing from major public health research studies because their numbers are much smaller compared to other groups. Sometimes they are grouped in with the “others” category. On top of that, most of the research on substance use and drinking patterns is from people living on designated reservations. These studies have neglected almost two-thirds of other native populations living in the U.S.

Mental Health factors that affect Native American alcoholism and Drug Abuse

There are many different risk factors that play a role in the development of substance and alcohol addiction. Studies have shown that AIAN community members have a higher prevalence of mental health disorders which often lead to higher rates of substance and alcohol use disorders associated with having a dual diagnosis. Depressive symptoms and signs of clinical depression are commonly associated with substance abuse among AIAN populations due to long-term untreated mental health conditions.

One of the biggest mental health factors includes colonization by European settlers and forced relocation by the American government. These historical events contribute to the development of trans-generational trauma, which eventually leads to self-medication through drugs and alcohol.

The invasion of the European settlers completely changed the way of life for many AIAN communities. Attacks on their communities and genocide of their people have had a major effect on their health, livelihood and lifespan. These distressing situations develop into PTSD, which can then be passed down to multiple generations.

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Later in history, some AIAN communities were forced to relocate from their ancestral lands. Being forcibly removed from their homes to less socioeconomic status and living conditions brought on another wave of trauma. The forced relocation and separated family generations caused extreme psychological damage. Some young AIAN children were forced into government boarding schools away from their families triggering another set of emotional stresses.

The combination of these traumatic events leads to the development of trauma that can be passed down from family member to family member and from generation to generation. This occurrence of chronic psychological trauma creates a winning cocktail for substance abuse and alcoholism in Native Americans.

Social and economic factors that contribute to Drug Abuse and Alcoholism in Native Americans

Another major factor in the prevalence of addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders in the AIAN community is a result of the lack of resources, opportunities and awareness for help for this group of people. Historically, these people have not been given enough resources to promote and sustain a healthy lifestyle.

The AIAN population has faced decreased employment and educational opportunities, as well as restricted access to life-enriching social services. AIAN communities have historically been very marginalized. They continue to face prejudice, injustices, and inequalities that prevent them from accessing tools and resources for behavioral health care.

Cultural factors that contribute to Addiction in Native American Communities

Culture plays a huge role in the development of opioid and alcohol addiction. Research has found that AIAN males drink almost three times more alcohol compared to females. Drinking in males has also been more culturally accepted. AIAN community members have been using alcohol for ceremonial and specialized purposes for centuries. This acceptance of behavior can lead to patterns of alcohol abuse. Once they were introduced to alcohol from the European colonies, biologically, their bodies lacked specific enzymes that could help break down the alcohol.

Today AIAN members are struggling to find a balance between their native culture and the modern “American” culture. Young people are often victims of trying to fit into two worlds while keeping up with the social demands and pressures presented by both. This leads to stress, anxiety and self-medication where turning to substances and alcohol is commonplace. Finding a balance between two roles and trying to integrate into two different contradictory cultures results in an intense amount of psychological pressure on a young person.

Preventative measures and Resources

There are many protective factors that can be incorporated to help curb the rise in opioid and alcohol addiction. Greater access to social support services and family support services help strengthen a person’s ability to stay away from substances. Another way to help would be for behavioral health providers to become educated in the knowledge of culture and traditions associated with AIAN communities. Being more aware of cultural sensitivities helps AIAN patients feel seen, understood and acknowledged in their need for treatment.

Reach out to Hotel California by the Sea

We specialize in treating addiction and other co-occurring disorders, such as PTSD. Our Admissions specialists are available to walk you through the best options for treating your addiction.

There are some treatment programs such as the Drum-Assisted Recovery Therapy for Native Americans (DARTNA), that focus specifically on helping AIAN communities struggling with substance and alcohol addiction. They often have greater success rates because these programs incorporate various cultural aspects that are not relevant to modernized concepts. They also address specific obstacles are unique to the struggles of AIAN community members.

Hotel California by the Sea is a premiere behavioral health treatment program that helps clients from all areas of the cultural spectrum. Individualized treatment plans are created for each client to target their substance and mental health conditions. Because there is no one size fits all form of treatment, each client’s overall health, well-being and cultural sensitivities are taken into consideration when forming a successful treatment path. Specialized therapies such as CBT, EMDR therapy and family therapy are evidenced-proven methods utilized in inpatient and outpatient programs. With three locations around the country, Hotel California by the Sea provides substance addiction and mental health disorder treatments for anyone who is struggling.