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Deadly Drug in Crosshairs: IHS Funds Anti-Meth Programs

The Indian Health Service has awarded more than 100 grants to help tribal communities battle the scourge of meth amphetamine and suicide.

The Indian Health Service has awarded more than 100 grants to help American Indian and Alaska Native communities battle the scourges of methamphetamine and suicide. The awards were made through the IHS Office of Clinical and Preventive Services, Division of Behavioral Health, as part of its Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative begun in 2009.

Research shows that meth use and suicide go hand in hand, and both are rife in Indian country. “The issues of suicide and methamphetamine use among American Indian and Alaska Native communities are at a critical stage,” said IHS Principal Deputy Director Robert G. McSwain in a statement.

The suicide rate among American Indian and Alaska Native people was a striking 60 percent higher than the rate for all Americans during the period 2007-2009, according to the IHS publicationTrends in Indian Health 2014.

The devastation is even more pronounced among youth. The suicide rate for American Indian and Alaska Native 15- to 24-year olds was four times higher than the rate for all Americans (39.7 suicides per 100,000 population v. 9.9 suicides per 100,000 population), according to the same source. Cluster suicides among American Indian and Alaska Native youth occur all too frequently, wreaking a terrible toll on families and communities.

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Alcohol and substance abuse are related to suicide, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. A white paper from HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states, “A growing body of studies has demonstrated that alcohol and drug abuse are second only to depression and other mood disorders as the most frequent risk factors for suicide.”

That relationship is particularly strong when the drug is injected meth. Research supporting that conclusion includes a 2011 study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence that found “M[eth] A[mphetamine] injection was associated with an 80 percent increase in the risk of attempting suicide,” compared with people who injected other drugs. A 2015 study also found that chronic amphetamine use is associated with attempted suicide.

The availability and use of meth is particularly widespread in American Indian and Alaska Native communities. “Native Americans now experience the highest meth usage rates of any ethnic group in the nation,” and American Indian communities are specifically targeted by Mexican drug cartels, according to the U.S. Justice Department publication “Methamphetamine in Indian Country: An American Problem Uniquely Affecting Indian Country.”

The studies that show a connection between meth use and suicide recommend that meth users be closely monitored for signs that they are thinking about killing themselves. The first step is to identify those who are using meth, which is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder. The signs that someone is using meth (also called speed, crank, smoke, chalk or crystal ice) include “increased wakefulness, increased physical activity, decreased appetite, increased respiration, rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure, and increased body temperature.” Long-term health effects of meth use include “extreme weight loss, severe dental problems (‘meth mouth’), and skin sores caused by scratching,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

These 117 IHS Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention Initiative grants, totaling $13.2 million, go to tribes, tribal organizations, urban Indian organizations, and IHS federal government programs to increase access to health services and build capacity within American Indian and Alaska Native communities to prevent and treat meth use and reduce suicides rates.

The current funding reflects the federal commitment to continue the work done through a six-year demonstration project that supported 130 health programs.

McSwain said, “The Indian Health Service remains dedicated to working closely with tribal entities to address, prevent and provide much needed resources. These awards allow IHS to increase the effectiveness of early prevention services, promote culturally sensitive programs and improve overall access to treatment and education.”

The demonstration programs included the Sisseton Wahpeton Tribe’s “Youth Digital Storytelling” series on Methamphetamine and Suicide Prevention, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s “Coming Together to Reduce Suicide” staff training effort using safeTalk, an evidence-based practice tool, and the Fresno American Indian Health Project’s “Suicide and Drug Abuse Prevention” project, which used the American Indian Life Skills Development curriculum, the Gathering of Native Americans curriculum, and the White Bison Sons & Daughters of Tradition curriculum.

IHS has published a complete list of awardees for this round of funding.