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Drumming Proves Beneficial for Overcoming Substance Abuse Disorders

A research study conducted by a team of psychiatrists based in Los Angeles, California concluded that drumming is beneficial for American Indians and Alaska Natives with substance abuse disorders, but clinical trials are needed to establish it as a standard treatment.

Dr. Daniel Dickerson, a double board-certified psychiatrist and addiction psychiatrist, said that they have found that drumming decreases depression and anxiety, enhances concentration, increases energy, decreases fatigue and enhances spirituality.

“At this point, we have had a pretest that has shown promising results. What we are working on next is designing a clinical trial so we can compare it to a standard typical treatment,” he said.

Establishing statistical evidence through clinical trials—which may take two to five years—can help pave the way for policy changes and reimbursement from insurance companies, he said, while acknowledging the serious challenges his team is expected to encounter in the next research phase.

Dickerson, who is Inupiaq and an assistant research psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was among those who presented at the Association of American Indian Physician Annual Meeting, July 31 to August 5, in Anchorage, Alaska.

His presentation, “Drum-Assisted Recovery Therapy for Native Americans (DARTNA): Pretest Results and Final Treatment Development,” reveals results of focus studies conducted over a few years and the 12-week DARTNA treatment program concluded early this year.

The 12-week program components included education and cultural discussion, drumming activities and a talking circle/processing group. Each week focused sequentially on the 12-steps of Alcoholic Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous and concepts of the Northern Plains Medicine Wheel.

Dickerson said there were 10 participants for the program, held in Los Angeles at the United American Indian Involvement. All participants had a history of substance use disorders, with ages ranging from 18 to 65.

“This is the first time we are presenting to professional doctors,” he said, noting that study is funded by a federal grant though the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

“We have done a lot of presentations in the past but this is significant because we are presenting it to a national audience of Native American doctors and leaders of the medical field,” Dickerson said.

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“Drumming is an activity often used in ceremonies and sacred celebrations but there is also a role for drumming for Native Americans. This is an introduction of how it could be used for patients with substance abuse disorders.”

Substance abuse has been persistently high in the American Indians and Alaska Natives communities, Dickerson said. Data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, from 2004 to 2008, revealed that rates of illicit drug use were 11.2 percent higher than national rates at 7.9 percent, while rates for binge alcohol use were 30.6 percent vs. 24.5 percent.

“DARTNA is good for those with drug and alcohol problems. We know that alcohol is a big problem,” he said. But beyond substance abuse, he believes that drumming may also be used for other health problems such as healing for domestic abuse and violence.

“Not many clinical trials have been done,” said Dickerson, emphasizing the need for more research and statistical numbers. “We are preparing for clinical trial now. We are in the process of getting a grant.”

“Many places offer drumming opportunities as an activity but research documenting its efficacy is limited,” he added.

A lot of factors need to be addressed in these clinical trials, he said. For instance, he knows it will be a challenge to obtain adequate numbers and statistical power among the Natives population.

“Dispersed populations of American Indians/Alaska Natives within urban and small populations in rural areas are realities that must be addressed,” he said.

There are also other questions that need to be answered in DARTNA studies. Among them, can the drum be used in a culturally-appropriate manner for substance abuse cases? How important is it culturally to accompany singing with drumming?

In many tribes, drumming is not a role traditionally prescribed for women, said Dickerson. What are the roles of females in drumming?

“Some cultural leaders have concerns with further dilution of American Indian/Alaska Natives cultures by offering women the opportunity to drum rather than their typical role of accompanying men by dancing and singing,” Dickerson said.

Another concern is the diversity in tribal traditions. Each tribe has a different way of using their drums.