Addiction Treatment for Native Americans

Specialized addiction treatment programs for Native Americans can help people end an addiction to drugs or alcohol. More here on what these programs include and where to find them. A basic resource guide here.

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Reviewed by: Dr. Juan Goecke, M.D.
Reviewed by: Dr. Juan Goecke, M.D.

ARTICLE SUMMARY: This article is written for First People ready to find addiction treatment. We’ll review resources, signs of a problem, and where to get help.


The Need

Substance abuse is one way that people – any of us – deals with trauma. However, substance use disorders are disproportionately high among the First People of America and Canada. In particular, alcohol abuse is especially prevalent in the Native American community, and accounts for the majority of the substance abuse problems. Risk factors like poor economic conditions, lack of jobs, lack of suitable addiction treatment programs, and a lack of social services in native communities often contribute to the issue.

Fortunately, more agencies and government organizations like the National Institute of Health, SAMHSA, and Indian Health Service are beginning to recognize a need for specialized addiction treatment programs for Native Americans. In recent years, tribal governments have created substance abuse prevention and treatment programs for any native person that needs help.

These can include:

  • Culturally sensitive and customized content and language.
  • Easier access to treatment.
  • Residential addiction treatment programs.
  • Substance abuse awareness education in schools.
  • Outpatient addiction treatment programs.

The Numbers

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of national findings in 2013 American Indians or Alaska Native (AI/ANs) had the highest rate of substance dependence compared with other racial groups. This includes highest rates of problems with:

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine and hallucinogen use disorders

…and the second highest meth abuse rates.

Also, a Colorado State University study focused on American Indian youth found out alarming substance use patterns, including patterns of substance use beginning much earlier than it is typical for other Americans. Furthermore, the 2012 NSDUH report showed that AI/Ans were more likely than persons from other racial/ethical groups to have needed treatment for alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year.

The N-SSATS report of 2009 reported that in 2007, over 1 in 8 American Indians and Alaska Natives aged 12 or older were classified with substance dependence or abuse in the past year. Additionally, the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) found out that in 2012 there were more than 1.7 million substance abuse treatment admissions. 2.5 percent or about 44,000 admissions were American Indians or Alaska Native.

Specialized Treatment

Q: So, is treatment different for First People communities?

A: Yes, there are evidence-based addiction treatment methods for substance abuse treatment serving American Indian and Alaska Native communities. It is shown that EBT knowledge and practice is higher in addiction treatment programs serving these communities than previously.

Why separate treatment?

Some populations are more prone and vulnerable to effects of alcohol and illicit drugs. The variety of treatment programs exists to meet each group’s specific needs. Moreover, the treatment methods are tailored to fulfill specific neurochemical, cognitive, emotional, physical, and social requirements. For example, this clinical study published in the medical journal, BMC Psychiatry, found that rehab for the AI/AN population requires more integrated, individualized, comprehensive, and longer-term approaches to care.

Certain rehab centers provide programs for specific populations including American Indian and Alaska Natives. One way to find treatment for these population is with the help of the online treatment facility locator tool on SAMHSA website.

What To Expect?

Like all other addiction treatment programs, Native American drug addiction treatment is typically comprised of a few very important steps. Steps during Native American addiction treatment include an assessment, detox, treatment, and aftercare.

STEP 1. Assessment and evaluation.

During the first step of addiction treatment, we typically undergo a thorough evaluation by an addiction specialist. This involves determining the severity of the addiction and a suitable treatment plan. Usually, drug testing is required to determine baseline levels of a substance(s) in the system. Also, you can expect to fill in lots of paperwork and be interviewed for 1- 1.5 hours.

STEP 2. Detoxification.

Withdrawal from drugs or alcohol is usually very uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. To help make the process more comfortable and minimize the risk of relapse, a detoxification unit is generally recommended. People going through detox are typically monitored around the clock by medical professionals who can help ease withdrawal symptoms and assist during a medical emergency. This can help make the process less painful…and provide emotional and mental support during the process.

STEP 3. Psychological and pharmacological therapies.

Most reputable treatment programs take a multi-faceted approach to recovery. Treatment usually involves individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy, as well as pharmacological treatment for opiate addiction or any underlying mental health problems. The power of the community and the use of ritual and tradition can also be very helpful. A combination of both psychotherapy and prescription medications (when needed) can benefit anyone interested in long term addiction recovery.

STEP 4. Aftercare

Completing an addiction treatment program is not the end. Recovering people will usually need a great deal of support once they complete an addiction program. This usually involves weekly outpatient therapy sessions, self-help group therapy sessions, vocational training, community support, and a stay in a halfway house, if necessary.

Is It For Me?

Are you are wondering whether you have a drug problem, or not? First, answer honestly to these questions:

  • Do you feel urge/cravings to drink and/or use drugs?
  • Do you have any legal, family, work, or financial problems because of your drinking/using drugs?
  • Do you often find reasons to drink or use drugs?
  • Do you hide your drinking/using?
  • Have you tried and failed in quitting?
  • Do you still use no matter the negative consequences?

If you’ve answered ‘yes’ to a few or more of these questions, maybe it’s a time to seek help from a professional. Check out this link to find a certified addiction specialist. Or, you can call the SAMHSA hotline to speak confidentially about the problem. 1-800-662-HELP (4357), is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service for individuals and family members facing mental health and/or substance use disorders.

Still not sure that you may have substance use problems? Take a look into these screening tools that can help you:

Treatment Barriers

Like other demographics, Native Americans face a number of obstacles and barriers when trying to overcome an addiction. Some of the more common barriers are listed below.

  • Cultural view of addiction and addiction treatment
  • Denial of a problem with addiction
  • Family, work, or school obligations
  • Financial difficulties
  • Lack of health insurance
  • Language barriers
  • Limited access to suitable treatment facilities

According to this study the challenges for an effective substance abuse treatment to AI/AN communities fall into three categories:

  1. Providing clinical services.
  2. The infrastructure of treatment settings.
  3. The greater treatment system.

These set of challenges interact to form a highly complex treatment approach for the delivery of the addiction program.

But, don’t lose hope, there is always a way out… just reach out for help!

Where To Find Help?

Fortunately, you have a number of choices when you’re ready to seek help. For instance, you can speak with your primary physician, a local hospital, or local clinic. These medical professionals are usually able to refer you to suitable addiction treatment facilities.

Many tribal governments also operate addiction treatment facilities on reservations. The majority of these facilities offer outreach programs to help anyone ready to take the first steps toward recovery. To find out more about these facilities and services, you can either contact them directly or contact your tribe’s or reservation’s department of health.

You can also reach out to Native-specific organizations such as:

Do You Have Any Questions?

It’s important to remember that there’s no shame in asking for help to beat an addiction.

Got questions? If you or a loved one needs addiction treatment, don’t be afraid to reach out or ask questions.  Questions about addiction and its treatment can be left in the comments section below, and we’ll do our best to answer them as soon as possible.

Reference Sources: SAMHSA: American Indian and Alaska Native Substance Abuse Treatment Services
AZDHS: Prevention & Treatment of Substance Abuse in Native American Communities
SAMHSA: Facilities Serving American Indians and Alaska Natives
Alcohol and Drug Programs: Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Treatment
SAMHSA: Half of All Substance Abuse Treatment Facilities and More than Three Quarters of Those Owned by Tribal Governments Offer Outreach Services 
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
Medical Reviewers
Dr. Goecke is a medical doctor and general surgeon with personal experience of...

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a licensed medical professional.

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