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Nearly half of all Native American and Alaska Native suicides following intoxication are among those 29 and younger.

American Indians see highest percentage of suicides following alcohol intoxication

by Kelly Pflaum
Feb 05, 2013


Kelly Pflaum/MEDILL

Native Americans and Alaska Natives rank highest for percentages of suicides following alcohol intoxication. Click on the charts to see an enlarged view.

American Indians and Alaska Natives together make up the U.S. ethnic population with the highest proportion of suicides following alcohol intoxication, according to a new study released Tuesday by the Research Society on Alcoholism.

The study also showed Native people who committed suicide had the highest average alcohol level in their blood among all of the ethnic groups. And nearly half of those above the “legal” limit were 29 or younger.

“This is a tremendous and very sad loss that’s happening in these Native communities,” said Raul Caetano, dean of the University of Texas Southwestern School of Health Professions and lead researcher on the study. “These are young people who should have a bright future.”

The nationwide study evaluated the association between suicides and acute alcohol intoxication among different U.S. ethnic groups. There was a considerable difference among the ethnic groups.

The groups included Whites, Blacks, American Indians and Alaska Natives, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and Hispanics. For the purpose of this study, acute alcohol intoxication was defined as a blood alcohol content of 0.08 g/dl or greater, the level of legal intoxication in most states. The data analyzed for this study came from the 2003-2009 National Violent Death Reporting System, which includes demographic, social and toxicology information for people who died of suicide in 16 of the United States.

Caetano said he was not surprised that American Indians and Alaska Natives had a stronger association between suicide and legal intoxication. These communities often have higher instances of alcohol dependency, alcohol abuse, driving while intoxicated and arrest for public drunkenness, he said.

But he was surprised by the large number of individuals in younger age groups that showed this association in this Native community.

Joe Podlasek, executive director of the American Indian Center of Chicago, said that unfortunately these numbers are realistic. And the numbers are on the rise, he said.

“There is a tremendous focus among our community to save our children,” Podlasek said.

The Chicago area has the third-largest off-reservation community in the country, with an estimated 30,000 American Indians, Podlasek said. Illinois has a total of 100,000 Native people, he said.

As far as the Native community in Chicago is concerned, Podlasek said, “There are definitely a lot of young adults and teens in trouble, and we lose some every year.”

To address the issue of troubled youth in the community, the American Indian Center has an after-school program called Positive Paths, which encourages academic success, wellness and community service, among other positive aspects of life.

Podlasek said the American Indian Health Service of Chicago does a lot of work with families. It provides primary health care, mental health and community health services to the Native community in the Chicago area.

But, he said, “It’s one or two staff members trying to address the needs of an entire state.”

According to the study, the most common method of suicide among American Indians and Alaska Natives was by firearm, followed by hanging/suffocation.

Caetano said there needs to be a greater awareness that alcohol plays an important part in suicides. And there needs to be awareness of the dangers related to depression and alcohol use, he said.

“Doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants and counselors need to be aware that this may be a lethal combination,” Caetano said.

There need to be opportunities for prevention education, not only for individuals who are affected by depression and alcohol use, but also for clinicians who are trying to help, Caetano said.

One thing that has to change across the board, Podlasek said, is the lack of Native sensitivity in the delivery of services. Many in the American Indian community don’t want to go in for help and have to teach a counselor about their culture. This can act as a real deterrent for people needing help, Podlasek said. We need to create more support mechanisms that are culturally based, he said.

Podlasek said there should be a mandatory professional development program on the cultures of minority ethnic groups to help educate those providing services in order to improve Native sensitivity, Podlasek said.

“Partnership with our community is critical,” he said.