Native Americans Are Not More Likely To Suffer From Alcoholism

By May Wilkerson 02/10/16

The false negative stereotype around Native Americans and alcohol only serves to create more stigma.

Native Americans Are Not More Likely To Suffer From Alcoholism

You may have heard the stereotype that Native Americans are more likely to be alcoholics. But a group of sociology scholars are saying that this is just a myth. In fact, Native Americans are no more likely than white Americans to binge drink or drink heavily, according to surveys. And they may be more likely to abstain from alcohol use entirely.

The information was based on answers collected from two national surveys, one administered by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Health (SAMHSA) and the other by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surveying 4,000 Native Americans and 170,000 whites between 2009 and 2013.

Researchers found that about 17% of both Native Americans and whites qualified as binge drinkers, which is defined as five or more drinks on one to four days in the past month. And about 8% of both groups qualified as heavy drinkers, defined as five or more drinks on five or more days in the past month. The major difference between the two groups is that 60% of Native Americans reported not drinking at all in the past month, compared to only 43% of whites.

Based on these numbers, the idea of Native Americans being drunker-than-the-average American is in fact not true at all. However, this doesn’t mean there are no substance use problems on Native American reservations. "Of course, debunking a stereotype doesn't mean that alcohol problems don't exist," said the study’s lead author James K. Cunningham, PhD, of the University of Arizona Native American Research and Training Center. "All major U.S. racial and ethnic groups face problems due to alcohol abuse, and alcohol use within those groups can vary with geographic location, age and gender.”

However, Cunningham notes that these stereotypes can be damaging to Native Americans, creating potential hurdles to employment or medical care. “Falsely stereotyping a group regarding alcohol can have its own unique consequences,” he said. “For example, some employers might be reluctant to hire individuals from a group that has been stereotyped regarding alcohol. Patients from such a group, possibly wanting to avoid embarrassment, may be reluctant to discuss alcohol-related problems with their doctors." 

Stereotypes could also lead to inaccurate diagnoses of health problems. If doctors buy into a false stereotype about Native Americans being more prone to alcohol use, they may inaccurately attribute health problems to alcohol use and overlook the actual problem.

The authors of the study hope the findings will cause people to change how they perceive Native Americans’ drinking habits. And maybe it will make them take a look at their own drinking habits, as well.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.