Prevalence of Substance Abuse in Native American Communities

Substance abuse is a significant public health concern in the United States.  Although it can affect anyone, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, religion, or socioeconomic status, it has unfortunately affected Native American communities in disproportionate amounts.  In fact, Native Americans are more likely than any other ethnic group to suffer from substance abuse problems.

Substance abuse can have substantial consequences on the health and overall wellbeing of individuals, families, and communities.  Substance abuse can lead to mental health disorders, chronic diseases, social problems, and economic strife. Understanding the incidence of substance abuse in Native American communities is central to addressing the issue and developing effective prevention programs and accessible treatment options.

Rates of Substance Use/Abuse

A 2019 report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) cites Native Americans as having the highest rates of substance abuse among any other ethnic group in the US.  The study found that 12.5% of Native Americans (aged 12 and older) struggle with a substance use disorder.  When compared to the 6.5% of the general population, this number is quite staggering.  The report went on to show the percentage of Native Americans with alcohol use disorder (10.5%) as being much higher than the general population (5.7%) as well.

Additionally, and in part due to the high rate of substance use/abuse, Native Americans have a lower life expectancy by 5.5 years (when compared to other ethnic populations).  And in recent years, it seems the problem may be worsening.  From 2016 to 2020, Native Americans experienced significantly higher alcohol-related deaths (at 52 out of 100,000) when compared to the rest of the population (at 12 out of 100,000).

Commonly Used Substances

The types of substances commonly used by Native Americans can vary based on the community and/or geographic region. Yet looking at the overall numbers, the mostfrequently abused substances among Native Americans include alcohol, tobacco, and prescription opioids.

According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Native Americans have the highest rates of alcohol use and binge drinking among all ethnic groups in the United States. Tobacco useis also high among Native Americans, with rates of cigarette smoking and use of other tobacco productssoaring far above other ethnic groups.

Additionally, opioidaddiction has become a substantialissue in many Native American communities, with prescription opioids being a major source of addiction.Other commonly used substances include cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine.

Contributing Factors to Substance Use/Abuse

There are manypotential factors (both individual and environmental) that influence the high rates of substance abuse in Native American communities.

  • Lack of awareness/education: High numbers of Native Americans lack access to information about the potential risks and consequences of substance abuse. And even those who are informed about the potential risks may lack knowledge on how to seek help for their substance use issue.
  • Lack of access to healthcare: Due to geographical location, lack of financial resources, and/or other contributing factors, many Native American communities have reduced access to healthcare services overall, including mental health and substance abuse treatment.
  • Peer pressure: While peer pressure can be a factor in with any population, at any age, and in any community, Native American youth seem to experience peer pressure around substance/alcohol use at significant rates.
  • Trauma: Native American communities have significant history in experiencing forced assimilation and displacement. And while these things may not be present today, it is not uncommon for Native Americans to face marginalization and/or other types of discrimination.  Unfortunately, these experiences often lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or residual trauma, which is a leading cause of substance abuse.
  • Genetics: Genetically speaking, Native Americans may be predisposed to alcoholism, due to the way their bodies metabolize

Through increased awareness of this issue, we can work towards reducing the rates of substance abuse and improving the health and wellbeing of Native Americans.

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