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IHS Strives to Address Alcohol Misuse

by Walter Castle, Sr. Public Health Advisor, Alcohol and Substance Abuse Lead, Indian Health Service

Alcohol use can have long term and sometimes devastating effects on individuals, families and communities. Unfortunately, Indian Country is not always immune to these effects. Alcohol Awareness Month provides an opportunity to strengthen awareness, reduce stigma, and encourage communities to promote wellness. The Indian Health Service (IHS) is committed to developing support strategies to assist American Indian and Alaska Native communities to address alcohol and substance misuse.

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States with 17.6 million people (one in every 12 adults) suffering from alcohol misuse or dependence and several million engaging in risky, binge drinking patters that may lead to alcohol issues.

IHS alcohol and substance abuse expert Marcy Ronyak, Ph.D., speaks about common myths of alcoholism during Alcohol Awareness Month.
MSPI Program Focus is Native Youth

In response, IHS expanded the national Methamphetamine Suicide Prevention Initiative (MSPI) to provide substance use and suicide prevention and intervention resources and approaches that are culturally appropriate for use by tribal communities. IHS currently funds 159 projects totaling more than $22.3 million. One of our primary focus areas within MSPI is Native youth. Purpose Area 3 focuses on substance use disorder prevention, treatment and aftercare. There are currently 19 projects providing over $2 million dollars to tribal and urban programs. The goals of this focus area are to encourage programs to build direct service to address substance use disorder through collaboration and innovation to meet the unique needs of their communities.

The national goal of MSPI Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) is to promote early intervention strategies and implement positive youth programming aimed at reducing risk factors for suicidal behavior and substance misuse. IHS funds 91 Gen-I projects for a total of $13.9 million. Projects address objectives that aim to build resiliency, promote positive development, and increase self-sufficiency behaviors among Native youth, engage families, increase access to prevention activities that address substance use and suicidal behaviors, and increase the number of behavioral health providers who specialize in treating children and adolescents. This collaborative process allows IHS and Tribes to identify and share best practices throughout tribal communities in addressing substance use issues.

TAP Provides Resources to Tribes

IHS collaborates with other federal agencies to support tribes in addressing substance issues from a strategic perspective through Tribal Action Plan (TAP) development. IHS serves as the chair of the TAP work group that assists tribes in developing plans that best meets their needs through trainings, reviews, resource access, and technical assistance.  Tribes are able to develop a systemic action plan that identifies multiple opportunities to address alcohol and substance misuse. Over time, excessive alcohol use, both in the form of heavy drinking or binge drinking, can lead to numerous health problems, chronic diseases, neurological impairments and social problems, which may be addressed by the development of a TAP unique to the tribal community.

Research shows that addressing alcohol use in early stages is one of the most effect ways to reduce misuse.  IHS is working with direct service sites to incorporate Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment into their intake process. By identifying potential alcohol issues early on, it allows practitioners to intervene which has shown higher favorable outcomes with alcohol use reduction.

IHS continues to look for ways to reduce harmful alcohol and substance use within tribal communities by raising the physical, mental, social, and spiritual health of American Indians and Alaska Natives to the highest level.

Walter Castle, LCSW, MCAP, is a senior public health advisor and alcohol and substance abuse lead in the Division of Behavioral Health at the Indian Health Service.

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Walter Castle, Sr. Public Health Advisor, Alcohol and Substance Abuse Lead, Indian Health Service