Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have become significant problems for all ethnic and racial groups in various areas of the US, including Native Americans. While research shows that Native Americans are not more likely to be addicted or use than are other groups in the United States, Native Americans do suffer disproportionately from drug and alcohol related illnesses and deaths. Unemployment, the loss of the Native American culture, and poverty on and near Indian reservations are a few reasons that Native Americans turn to drugs and alcohol.

According to the Department of Health and Human Service's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Native Americans have a life expectancy six years less than the general population and suffer higher rates of death related to alcoholism, tuberculosis, diabetes, suicide and homicide than other ethnic groups.

These statistics and the accompanying stereotypes are not accurate for all Native American people, though. Many tribes and individual Native Americans practice abstinence and drinking in moderation, aligning the substance abuse levels of their tribe with the rest of the country.

Native American Teen Drug Use

A 2011 study entitled “Racial/Ethnic Variations in Substance-Related Disorders Among Adolescents in the United States," published in Archives of General Psychiatry, found that nearly 50 percent of the Native American youth surveyed had used drugs or alcohol in the previous year, and 15 percent exhibited symptoms or related experiences suggesting substance abuse. The study also found that adolescents (children aged 12 to 17 years) are more likely to use marijuana than other drugs or alcohol; a pattern that holds true across all ehtnic groups.

Some state and federal agencies have tried to combat drug and alcohol abuse within the Native American community by teaching young people more about their culture. In California, the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs found that Native American youth who understand their culture are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

In prevention programs, youth learn about ceremonies, rituals and crafts that are particular to their culture, providing the adolescents with stronger ties to their community and teaching them the values of the Native American culture.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome And Native Americans

Native Americans suffer greater rates of fetal alcohol syndrome disorders than other ethnic groups. Health and Human Services reports that in some tribes, 1.5 to 2.5 children per 1,000 live births are diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. In other ethnic groups in the United States, those rates range from .2 to one child per 1,000 live births.

Health officials argue, much in the same vein as those who work in youth services, that poverty, low levels of access to health care and substance abuse rehabilitation centers are some factors in the increased levels of alcohol use among pregnant women in the Native American community.

Substance abuse among Native Americans and Alaska Natives is a concern within the community. State, local, federal and tribal officials all agree that the availability of preventative measures and treatment is the most useful way to curb substance abuse within the community. High levels of fetal alcohol syndrome and developmental problems, in addition to teen and youth drug use, inhibit tribal growth and affect the tribal leaders of the future.