Native Americans and Opiate Use

Native Americans and Opiate Use

Native Americans and Opiate Use

Native Americans struggle with complex issues making them vulnerable to addiction, especially the rise in opiate addictions. The recent spike in opiate use requires dramatic interventions, including highly effective treatment, better law enforcement on reservations and widespread education.

Nearly 20% of Native Americans currently misuse drugs, including 6% who use prescription drugs non-medically. This population reports higher drug use due to a history of troubling discrimination, trauma and social problems. Tribal groups also suffer with opiate addictions at a higher rate than other populations, leading to elevated overdose rates.[1] Their cultural past links them with many substances, including alcohol, marijuana and now opiates. Opiate abuse is increasingly popular among not only middle-aged and elderly Native Americans, but also teenage and young Native Americans who experiment with these highly addictive drugs.

While the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2014) indicates a subtle slowing of nonmedical use of prescription pain relievers, there is a growing use of heroin. Researchers believe the high cost of prescription opiates encourages people to switch to these cheaper street drugs.[2] The lure of cheaper opiates is especially dangerous on reservations. Reservations have limited funds and lack law enforcement resources. They also have low-employment rates, making them a target of Mexican drug cartels, which want to recruit tribes for drug trafficking. Under pressure from these outside forces, Native Americans are more likely to become addicted and suffer serious legal troubles.[3]

Reasons Behind Native American Opiate Use

Most Native Americans suffer with addiction due to a variety of cultural influences, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Unique issues that affect this population include the following:

  • Environmental causes – Native American culture emphasizes resourcefulness, so this group utilizes every available resource, including medications and drugs. The problem with such resource utilization is the highly addictive nature of opiates, which creates a strong physical dependency. Native Americans quickly find themselves addicted to opiates rather than only using them for medicinal benefits. Therefore, as Native Americans continue to abuse opiates and raise their children under the influence, they create an environment that encourages their children to abuse opiates.
  • Emotional pain – Many Native Americans suffer from some kind of pain, especially emotional pain from social challenges, unemployment, history of mistreatment and more. To cope with this, Native Americans sometimes abuse opiates and become addicted.
  • High suicide rates –Native Americans experience high suicide rates because they often suffer from isolation. As more and more Native Americans become suicidal, they may abuse opiates, because they lack the resources to psychologically care for themselves.[4]

Opiate abuse among Native Americans often stems from environmental issues, continued emotional pain and high suicide rates, but treatment is available to help this unique people group recover and stay clean for the long haul.

Specialized Treatment for Native Americans

Culturally sensitive addiction treatment offers people from Native American communities more nuanced information about their disease. People from tribal communities need specific interventions, according to SAMHSA’s Office of Tribal Affairs and Policy. Many Native Americans suffer with the co-occurring disorders of addiction and mental illness. Compared to the 3.3% national average for co-occurring conditions, 8.8% of Native Americans suffer with multiple conditions, which require integrated treatment plans.[5]

Programs that include both western and culturally based traditional healing programs offer the best outcomes for tribal communities. One way to ensure cultural sensitivity is to include both native and non-native people at all levels of the staff, including treatment counselors and other people who work with patients. Some treatment programs offer time in a sweat lodge to offer spiritual healing; other culturally aware forms of therapy. Furthermore, it’s important to address all sources of pain, including spiritual and emotional pain.[6]

The most effective way to fight opiate addiction is to seek professional care. Through an evidence-based treatment plan, Native Americans detox from their drug use and then learn the tools needed to fight temptations in the future. Specialized psychotherapy addresses the underlying, cultural causes of opiate abuse. In addiction to psychotherapy approaches, effective treatment offers additional types of therapy to teach positive coping skills and stress management techniques that bring high quality of life.

[1] Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2011). Collaborating with Native Americans and Alaskan Natives. Retrieved Apr. 19, 2016 from

[2] Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2015). Behavioral health trends in the United States: Results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Retrieved Apr. 19, 2016 from

[3] National Public Radio. (2015). Many Native American Communities Struggle With Effects Of Heroin Use. Morning Edition. Retrieved Apr. 19, 2016 from

[4] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2008). Native American Center for Excellence: Environmental Scan Summary Report. Retrieved Apr. 19, 2016 from

[5] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Racial and Ethnic Minority Populations: American Indians and Alaska Natives. Retrieved Apr. 19, 2016 from

[6] The USET/Mohegan Tribe’s Prescription Opiate Abuse Project. (2015). Retrieved Apr. 19, 2016 from