Racism drives aboriginals to addictions
But culture can prevent it, says researcher
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Jul 04, 2012 06:00 am
Racism is still rampant in and around Edmonton, suggests a new study, and it may be driving aboriginals into drug addictions.
A new study released June 24 by the University of Lethbridge looks at the link between racism and gambling/drug addictions in aboriginals in the Edmonton area. The study found that racism is still very common in the region and suggests racial discrimination can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder and addictions.
This is the first study to look at this seemingly obvious connection in Canada, said Cheryl Currie, an assistant professor in the faculty of health sciences at the University of Lethbridge.
“As racial discrimination rises, the level of problem gambling [and drug use] rises in a dose-response fashion.” American and Australian research has found similar results in other minority populations.
This comes as no surprise to Don Langford, chair of the board at Poundmaker’s Lodge near St. Albert. “When you’re down and out, what do you do? You look for those small quick pleasures, and that’s what addiction is.”
A recent survey by Racism Free Edmonton found that about 59 per cent of Edmonton residents said that aboriginals faced frequent discrimination in their area due to their race, compared to just 36 per cent of other visible minorities and 12 per cent of white people.
About 60 per cent of Alberta’s aboriginals now live in cities, said Currie, who specializes in social epidemiology (the study of epidemics), and there’s been little research done on them in that context.
Her team surveyed 381 Edmonton aboriginals in 2010 plus 60 aboriginal university students, asking each about racism, addictions and cultural practice.
About 82 per cent said they had experienced some form of racial discrimination in the last year, with 53 per cent reporting three or more incidents of it (the highest level possible). Just 38 per cent of U.S. African Americans report experiencing that much racism in their entire lives, Currie said.
Respondents reported getting in fights during school due to “Indianness” and being accused of prostitution simply for being an aboriginal woman. One recalled walking into an optometrist’s office only to be immediately told that, “We don’t cover Indians here.”
About a third of the people in Currie’s study reported having addictions problems, compared to about five per cent of the general population.
Once Currie’s team controlled for other factors such as child abuse and residential school experience, Currie said they found a direct correlation between rates of racism, prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and incidence of addictions.
“Racism, on its own, is contributing to feelings of PTSD amongst these people, and they’re coping with [it] by escaping through prescription drugs and gambling,” she said.
Culture turns the tide
Currie’s team found that respondents who in some way practiced their cultural traditions were less likely to become addicts, suggesting that culture could guard against addiction. This was at least partially due to greater self-esteem brought about through culture, Currie said.
Aboriginal ceremonies require clean living, Langford said, and you can’t be clean if you’re on drugs or alcohol. Poundmaker’s has had success in treating addicts by drawing on aboriginal practices such as the medicine wheel and sweat lodges.
For reasons that aren’t clear, Currie said most Canadian health research on aboriginals ignores race in favour of other factors like lifestyle choices or genetics. “Nobody seems to be looking at the extent to which racism could be leading to the increased health problems we’re seeing amongst our aboriginal Canadians.”
Racism is extremely threatening to people, Currie said, and puts people into a constant fight-or-flight state of mind. American research has convincingly linked racism to higher rates of obesity, heart disease and cancer in its victims.
Canadians need to get a better grip on the amount of racism that’s out there, Currie said, and do more to reduce racism against urban aboriginals. “We need to do something about this.”
Currie’s study is available online through the Journal of Gambling Studies.