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Native Americans and Alcoholism

Alcohol Recovery for Native Americans

Native Americans are an ethnic group comprised of American Indians and Alaska Natives residing throughout North, South, and Central America. In 2012, there were an estimated 5.2 million Native Americans living throughout the United States.1

Native Americans have historically experienced a high prevalence of alcoholism. Understanding the causes and impact of alcoholism on this group and the recovery options available can help Native Americans find the necessary help.

Causes of Alcoholism Among Native Americans

Native Americans have some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse among minority groups—which leads some to ask whether they are prone to alcoholism.3 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 alcoholism.

  • Economic disadvantage: 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 Poor education, poverty and limited resources 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, led to historical trauma. 4 This unresolved grief has been transmitted across generations from parents to children, which has led to the development of negative coping mechanisms such as drinking. 4
  • History of abuse: 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 Chronic illnesses can lead to significant stress and increase the risk of alcohol abuse.
  • Mental health problems: Native Americans experience high rates of mental illness and suicide. 3 The suicide rate among Native American teens is 2.5 times greater than the national average.3 Native Americans also have high rates of co-occurring disorders, which refers to having both a mental illness and a substance abuse problem.3 Having a mental illness or having a loved one suffer from one can cause a great deal of distress.

Although certain factors are believed to cause high rates of alcoholism among Native Americans, the specific reasons that people drink vary. Each individual is unique and influenced by economic, cultural, and other factors in different ways.

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Some drinkers are able to moderate their alcohol use. But others may meet criteria for an alcohol use disorder (alcoholism). Professionals diagnose an alcohol use disorder when a person experiences significant problems in his or her life due to drinking.

Symptoms of an alcohol use disorder include:5

  • Drinking more than intended.
  • Failed attempts to cut down.
  • 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.

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

  • Sleep disturbances.
  • Poor appetite.
  • Headaches.
  • Confusion.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Nausea.
  • Vomiting.
  • Fever.
  • Sweating.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Anxiety.
  • Agitation.
  • Tremors.
  • Seizures.
  • Inadequate breathing. 6

Treatment for Alcoholism

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

  • Detox centers: Detox is necessary in some cases of alcohol addiction. Detox programs are staffed with medical professionals who monitor symptoms and prescribe medications to reduce the risks associated with alcohol withdrawal. 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: Inpatient Native American substance abuse programs offer both residential housing and addiction treatment in a structured, drug-free environment. Inpatient treatment programs provide group, individual, and family therapy sessions; medication; detox; self-help meetings; and other recovery-oriented activities.
  • Outpatient recovery: Outpatient treatment programs provide weekly therapy without supervised housing. The amount and frequency of therapy sessions each week depend on the program and each individual’s needs.
  • Teen rehab: Adolescent programs specialize in treating youth and their families. Native American adolescents may face unique issues that contribute to their alcohol use. Adolescent treatment programs often incorporate family members and academic support or schooling into the treatment process.
  • Dual diagnosis: Dual diagnosis programs provide treatment for both addiction and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health issues often 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 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. For information about how Alcoholics Anonymous can help Native Americans, see the pamphlet A.A. for the Native North American.

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 and associated therapies. You can also sign up 24/7 text support for addiction questions at your convenience.

Native American Recovery Services

Culturally sensitive treatment centers are aware of the influence of culture on a person’s life and recovery. These treatment programs may offer activities that incorporate Native American culture, such as:

  • Talking circles.
  • Sweat lodges.
  • Traditional symbols such as the Medicine Wheel.

Native American recovery programs may also use traditional music, foods, crafts, and beadwork. 7

Native Americans seeking addiction treatment may also want to discuss including elders, spiritual leaders, and family members into treatment.

Native American Alcoholism Facts and Statistics

  • Heavy alcohol use. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 9.2% of Native Americans ages 12 and older were current heavy alcohol users, the highest rate of any ethnic group. 9
  • Binge drinking. In 2015, approximately 346,000 Native Americans reported binge drinking within the past month. 8
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome. Native Americans have one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) in the United States. FASD can occur when a mother drinks alcohol during her pregnancy. Children born with FASD can suffer from life-long physical, mental, and behavioral issues. 10
  • Overdose. Native Americans have the highest rate of deaths from alcohol poisoning per million people. Death from alcohol poisoning can occur when a person drinks a large amount in a short period of time, causing the brain to shut down. 11
  • Dual diagnosis. In 2014, the rate of co-occurring disorders among Native Americans was 8.8%, which was significantly higher than the national average of 3.3%. 3
  • Treatment. Native Americans are more likely than other ethnic groups to need treatment for alcohol addiction.12 In 2013, 41,953 Native Americans sought addiction treatment.13 Between 2003 and 2011, 186,000 Native Americans who were in need of addiction treatment did not receive services. 12

Find a Recovery Center

Finding a treatment program that fits your needs and understands your cultural background can be challenging. Make sure you prepare for the call with the admissions consultant. You will likely be asked some or all of the following questions:

  • 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 Native American substance abuse programs and the process of going to treatment. 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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