On average, 250 Americans die every day from a drug overdose. Opioid misuse is a public health crisis that has hit the United States, but for many Native Americans and Alaska Natives, it’s more than just a headline. This article will explain why Native American communities in the U.S. are especially vulnerable to opioid use disorder and its consequences—including overdose deaths—and what these populations can do to protect themselves from harm.
Opioid Epidemic Impact On Native American Communities
Native American communities in the U.S. have been hit especially hard by opioid use disorder and its consequences. Native Americans are more likely to die from an overdose of opioids, including prescription painkillers and heroin, than other groups in the United States. While in the US, about 4.6% of non-natives die of a prescription opioid overdose; the rate among Native Americans is 50% higher.
More than 2 million people in the United States are estimated to have a substance use disorder related to prescription opioids or heroin at any time, according to SAMHSA’s 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).
However, this rate is even higher for those who live on reservations or other tribal lands: about 10% of adults living on reservations were diagnosed with opioid use disorder. Additionally, substance dependence is higher among Native Americans than any other group in the country. Overall, past drug use rates are three times higher than any other ethnic group.
Overdose deaths due to opioid abuse have increased among Native Americans since 2000. Sadly, overdose deaths involving opioids among the American Indian and Alaskan Natives population have increased by 191% since 2010. As of 2020, the number of overdose deaths among these communities is 27.4 per 100,000.
Historical trauma, poverty, and violence are some of the main factors contributing to the increased risk of addiction among Native Americans. Tribal communities are also more likely to deal with mental health issues such as suicidal ideation and depression.
Where is the Opioid Crisis Prevalent?
The reason that states with higher rates of opioid prescribing also typically have higher rates of fatal overdose is not causal. There are other factors at play here, and the opioid crisis is far more complex than simply overprescribing by doctors.
Overdose deaths involving opioids include heroin, commonly prescribed opioids like methadone, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl or tramadol. The top states with the highest drug poisoning death rates, based on the data that’s been released so far, are:
- West Virginia
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
Nonetheless, Native Americans and Alaska Natives experience the highest rate of drug poisoning deaths of any racial or ethnic group, with a rate more than twice that of whites. The death rate was 17.6 per 100,000 Native American and Alaska Native population in 2015, compared to 8.2 per 100,000 among white Americans.
Native Americans bear a disproportionate brunt of opioid use disorder. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that while only 6.9 percent of white patients were prescribed opioids following surgery, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives were prescribed opioids at rates 19 to 26 times higher than their white counterparts. Additionally, 13.1 percent of Native American patients were still using those drugs two years after surgery compared to just 1 percent of white patients.
SAMHSA reports that around 13% of Native Americans need substance abuse treatment, yet only 3.5% receive treatment. Unfortunately, this is primarily due to limited access to addiction treatment services, with barriers like lack of insurance coverage, transportation limitations, and shortage of treatment options in their communities.
Still, studies have shown that cultural identity is important for Native Americans seeking help for substance abuse disorders. These individuals might experience better outcomes when traditional approaches are incorporated into treatment programs.
Because of this, the Indian Health Service offers training programs for staff members in Native health care clinics. In addition, educating patients about the dangers of opioids could lead to higher recovery rates. However, more research needs to be done as these statistics may not reflect what’s happening on reservations across America today.
If you or someone you know is being affected by the opioid epidemic, please know there’s help available. Reach out to your primary healthcare provider and discuss your opioid use behavior to get recommended to an addiction treatment center. Recovery from opioid abuse is challenging, but it’s often the first step to a long-lasting life of sobriety.