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Native Americans and Alcohol Recovery

Native Americans are an ethnic group comprised of American Indians and Alaska Natives residing throughout North, South, and Central America. In 2020, approximately 3.7 million people identified as American Indian or Alaska Native.1

In 2018, 7.2% of American Indians and Alaska Natives aged 26 and older alcohol reported having an alcohol use disorder (AUD).3 Understanding the causes and impact of alcohol addiction on these groups and the recovery options available can help them find the necessary help.

Causes of Alcohol Addiction in Native Americans

Certain factors may contribute to the development of alcohol use disorders among Native Americans as well as prevent them from seeking help. Economic issues, cultural loss, domestic abuse, and physical and mental health issues may put Native Americans at higher risk of substance misuse.

  • Economic factors: Native Americans have high rates of unemployment and low rates of high school and college completion, and they are less likely to have medical insurance and access to healthcare.1, 2 Lack of education resources and poverty may contribute to greater use of alcohol.2
  • Cultural loss: Native American culture was significantly threatened after Europeans colonized the United States. Some sources speculate that the brutality and loss experienced by Native Americans, including loss of family members and tribes, land, and traditions, may have led to historical trauma.4
  • History of misuse: Throughout history, Native American children have been involuntarily taken from their homes and sent to boarding schools.2 Children did not have contact with their families and lived in schools with poor conditions, harsh discipline, and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.2, 4 Some children turned to alcohol to cope with the turmoil.4
  • Physical health problems: Native Americans have high rates of physical health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity, liver disease, hepatitis, and stroke.1 Native Americans are also at higher risk of being hurt in unintentional accidents and having children die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).1
  • Mental health challenges: Native Americans and Alaska Natives are 60% more likely to report feeling overwhelmed and like everything they do is effort compared to non-Hispanic white people, and 4.5% report feeling serious psychological distress.7

Although certain factors are believed to cause high rates of alcohol addiction among Native Americans, the specific reasons why people drink can vary. Everyone is unique and influenced by economic, cultural, and other factors in different ways.

Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol use disorder, known as alcohol addiction, is diagnosed by a medical professional using a set of criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, 5th Edition. When a person meets 2 or more of the criteria in a 12-month period, they may qualify as having an AUD.

Symptoms of an alcohol use disorder include:5

  • Drinking more than intended.
  • Failed attempts to cut down drinking.
  • Spending a long time drinking or recovering from the effects of alcohol.
  • Strong urges to drink.
  • Difficulty taking care of responsibilities at home, work, and/or school because of alcohol.
  • Continuing to drink despite problems with family and friends.
  • Giving up important activities or pleasures to drink.
  • Drinking alcohol in dangerous situations.
  • Continuing to drink despite physical or mental health problems.
  • Tolerance: the need for more alcohol to experience the desired effects or experiencing less of an effect with the same amount.
  • Withdrawal symptoms when a person stops drinking.

Alcohol withdrawal can be quite dangerous and, in severe instances, even fatal. Individuals at risk of experiencing alcohol withdrawal should be supervised by a medical professional.6 Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include:6

  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Poor appetite.
  • Headaches.
  • Confusion.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Sweating.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Anxiety.
  • Agitation.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizure.
  • Inadequate breathing.

Treatment for Alcohol Addiction

Treatment can be extremely helpful for Native Americans or Alaska Natives struggling with alcohol problems. Different types of Native American alcohol treatment programs may include:

  • Detox centers. Detox programs are staffed with medical professionals who monitor symptoms and can prescribe medications to help reduce the risks associated with alcohol withdrawal or other co-occurring disorders. Severe alcohol withdrawal can involve delirium tremens, a condition that includes changes in consciousness, sweating, nausea, heart palpitations, and tremors. Without proper treatment, serious cases of alcohol withdrawal may result in death.6
  • Inpatient rehab. Native American substance abuse programs can include inpatient settings that offer residential housing and addiction treatment in a structured, drug-free environment. Inpatient treatment programs typically provide group, individual, and family therapy sessions, medication management, detox; mutual support groups, and other recovery-oriented interventions.
  • Outpatient recovery. Outpatient treatment programs provide regular services without supervised housing. The amount and frequency that a person attend treatment each week will depend on the program and each individual’s needs.
  • Dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis, or co-occurring disorder programs provide treatment for both addiction and mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health issues can lead people to turn to negative coping skills such as drinking. Treating the underlying mental health condition is important for reducing the risk of relapse.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA is a 12-step recovery group for people struggling with drinking. It is free to join, and meetings are available around the world. AA helps members connect with a sober community and work through the 12 steps.

American Addiction Centers has helped thousands recover from addiction and we can help you or your loved one too. Check your insurance coverage to find out instantly if your insurance provider may be able to cover all or part of the cost of rehab. You can also sign up 24/7 text support for addiction questions at your convenience.

Statistics about Native Americans and Alcohol

  • Heavy alcohol use.3% of American Indians or Alaska natives reported alcohol use in the previous month to the 2018 survey, which was 55.3% higher than the U.S. national average.3
  • Binge drinking. In 2015, approximately 346,000 Native Americans reported binge drinking within the past month.8
  • Dual diagnosis. In 2018, the rate of co-occurring disorders among Native Americans was 5.3%.3
  • Addiction treatment. Native Americans are more likely than other ethnic groups to need treatment for alcohol addiction9 Between 2003 and 2011, 186,000 Native Americans who needed addiction treatment did not receive services.9

Find a Recovery Center

Finding a treatment program that fits your needs and understands your cultural background can be challenging, but there are programs out there for everybody. When you call a facility, you may be asked:

  • How long have you been drinking?
  • How much do you drink on a weekly/daily basis?
  • How old is the person who needs treatment?
  • Does the person have any medical or psychological issues in addition to the addiction?
  • Where does that person live?
  • What kind of insurance do you have?
  • Do you want to stay in your hometown or travel for treatment?

What to Ask When Calling for Help

Before you call the helpline, jot down some questions you have about addiction programs for Native Americans. Some common questions people ask are:

  • How much does treatment cost?
  • How do I pay for treatment?
  • How long does treatment last?
  • Which form of treatment is right for me?
  • Can the program treat other physical or mental health conditions I have?
  • Does the program offer detox?
  • Are there other rehab options outside of my area?
  • What happens in rehab?
  • What can I bring to rehab?

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