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Substance Use in American Indian Youth is Worse than We Thought

September 11, 2014

We have long known that American Indian communities are particularly vulnerable to problems with substance use, which are tied in part to limited socioeconomic opportunity. But because national surveys fail to fully capture drug use patterns on or near reservations, the true scope of the problem has been elusive. A new study focusing on American Indian youth reveals alarming substance use patterns, including patterns of drug use beginning much earlier than is typical for other Americans.

A team of NIDA-funded prevention researchers at Colorado State University analyzed data from the American Drug and Alcohol Survey given to American Indian students at 33 schools on or near reservations in 11 U.S. states in 2009-2012. A comparison with nationwide data from the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey is striking, particularly in the much higher prevalence of drug and alcohol use in 8th and 10th graders compared to national averages. In 2009-2012, 56.2 percent of American Indian 8th graders and 61.4 percent of those in 10th grade had used marijuana, compared to 16.4 percent of 8th graders and 33.4 percent of 10th graders in the MTF survey.  American Indian students’ annual heroin and Oxycontin use was about two to three times higher than the national averages in those years.

Also noteworthy was the finding that American Indian youth are initiating alcohol and drug use earlier than their non-native counterparts. As can be seen in the graph below, past-month (current) use of marijuana and alcohol (including binge drinking) were at the same level from 8th through 12th grade for the American Indian students, which sharply contrasts with the steep increases from 8th to 12th grade seen in MTF. Although current alcohol use by American Indian 12th graders was lower than the MTF average (one positive note in the study), current marijuana use stood at 35 percent for American Indian seniors—much higher than the 21.5 percent in the MTF survey.

Graph showing increased use of drugs in most categories by American Indian/Alaskan Native students - see text

Data collected by the researchers on regular (daily or near-daily) marijuana use by American Indian adolescents (although not included in the article) is particularly startling: Fully 8 percent of American Indian 8th graders said they were regular marijuana users (compared to 1.3 percent of MTF 8th graders); 14 percent of American Indian 10th graders reported regular use (compared to 3.6 for MTF); and 15.3 percent of American Indian seniors reported regular use (compared to 6.6 percent for MTF). The strongly suspected links between regular marijuana use and outcomes like academic failure and long-term cognitive impairment make these statistics highly worrisome.

Indeed the already high rates of marijuana use seen for American Indian 12th graders may actually underestimate marijuana use prevalence in this age group. Only about 47 percent of American Indian teens finish high school—compared to 71 percent of non-native teens—and drug use is generally higher in those who do not attend school.

This study is quite a wake-up call. High substance use in American Indian communities contributes to a range of social problems including violence, delinquency, and mortality from suicide or alcohol or other substance abuse. Thus these findings alert us to the urgency of implementing prevention programs in these communities. Moreover, given that American Indian youth are already using drugs and alcohol at high levels by the time they become teenagers, we clearly must do more to intervene at an earlier age.

Several early childhood interventions, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, have been shown to effectively (and cost-effectively) reduce adolescent drug use and related problems in disadvantaged communities by targeting risk and protective factors as early as the prenatal period and infancy.  Another program, Family Spirit, is tailored specifically for American Indian teen mothers and has shown positive early results. Early prevention using these or other interventions is crucial, lest we lose another generation of American Indians to substance abuse and addiction.

This page was last updated September 2014


Indian Reservations substance abuse

Good article. Before even reading this article, just last night I was losing sleep over this very concept. I had noticed a variety of news articles over the last few years discussing the rise in narcotics in the reservations, in addition to the already pervasive problem of alcohol on some of the reservations (emphasis on 'some', not all).
W/o divulging too many details, just a week ago, I was looking through old letters, photos etc. We had connections to a reservation in South Dakota, with a few of the kids growing up there. One of the girls was so admiring and fond, and wrote the nicest notes and letters as a teenager. Lots of hope and wonder of a sweet sixteen year old girl, plus she wrote how she too looked forward to having a baby and bringing up a son into this world.
Later she was married and had that cute little son. A bit later she wrote in despair, as much was going wrong around her.
That was about twenty two years ago. Digging up those old letters and photos, as a courtesy to other parties involved, I thought I would try to touch base with her. Unfortunately, as I found out on an internet search, she died at age forty. Even more startling was that in her obitiuary, was mention of other siblings about her age, who preceded her in death..
Then, while trying to search that cute little kid, now 22, to see of his whereabouts, perhaps make a phone call, chat a bit, that sort of thing that many kids appreciate I found him too on an internet search, but in legal trouble for sexual assault allegations.
The hope has always been that if we can find a way to conquer just one substance being abused, namely alcohol, and treat it as a mental health issue as it should be, and not something of derision, there could ultimately be a solution to this difficult problem. Unfortunately, the American drug culture that has sprung up in a major way (it was always here in a minor fashion) over the last few decades, has compounded this challenge immensely. It could be now that what was an intractable problem with a certain measure of difficult challenge, has now, because of newer drugs, gone beyond the point of no return. I hope not, but now the problem seems infinitely worse because of narcotics.

re.American Indian Drug Abuse

I agree somewhat but really disagree at the same time. I think a lot is still in the parenting and how your raised. My son is American Indian and I couldn't be more proud. His dad, we divorced when my son was young. He had a much different childhood so yes abusive.

Drug and Alcohol Awareness in Alaska Rural Villages!

I am 41 years old and I am an Alaskan Native Athabascan, Aleut born and raised in Anchorage, AK. I myself have experienced in life the effects of drugs and alcohol abuse in a small city. In and out of jail and institutions most of my life. I 've had my demons to deal with and then some but, I am in recovery now and I pray for myself and others to never go down that path ever in life. But, what really hit home for me was that I have a first cousin that has been battling colon cancer but, is now in remission from it. Unfortunately, she recently found out she had cancer of the liver and decided to give up on herself, children and family. She made a choice of smoking cocaine and doing pills to numb her pain and suffering, she thought it was over. When I saw her I barely recognized her she was so thin and old looking. So, I began to talk with her about what she is doing to herself and her children and what she would leave behind. She felt so bad with everything that was going on in her life, which is very understandable but, I told her that there are other ways to deal with these problems other than using drugs and alcohol. I told her to think about what your doing to your children, family and yourself, do you want to be remembered this way. The next day after our conversation, she decided to quit instantly and fight back, she told her children and family members she is done doing drugs. In weeks following her decision, she had to fly back to Anchorage from Arctic Village and have major surgery on her liver and gallbladder. Everyone was praying over her and for her to make it. She had her surgery and the doctors reports were that they got the cancer out of her liver and the cancer did not spread! So, everyone that was praying for her were very happy with the news, prayers were answered. She is recovering very well and she told me that she has never felt better in her life then right now. She never wants to go back to the drug life that she was living and is going to continue to fight back and prove everyone wrong. She also mentioned that everyone in Arctic and Venetie village are all addicted to prescription drugs badly including one of her children. They are ordering pills online and having them shipped C.O.D. to the village. So, these highly addictive pills are being easily accessible via the internet now and are becoming a serious epidemic in the rural villages of Alaska. So, today I stand wanting to fly to all rural Alaskan villages and teach my people what they are doing to themselves and others around them and what these drugs are doing to there bodies inside and out. I want vivid videos and pictures and informational pamphlets that I can give to the schools and people. I am trying to find a grant that will pay someone to fly to all rural Alaskan villages and show the Alaskan Native people what these drugs are doing to our bodies and mind and that there are other ways to deal with their problems. I know there may be a lot of pro's and con's to this but, I am willing to take a chance. My sister is a Principle in the Village of Ft. Yukon and she says there is no one that has done this as well as Arctic village and Venetie village. The Alaskan Natives need help!

Find Help Near You

The following website can help you find substance abuse or other mental health services in your area: www.samhsa.gov/Treatment. If you are in an emergency situation, people at this toll-free, 24-hour hotline can help you get through this difficult time: 1-800-273-TALK. Or click on: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgExternal link, please review our disclaimer.. We also have step by step guides on what to do to help yourself, a friend or a family member on our Treatment page.

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