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Alcohol And Drug Abuse And Its Relationship To Indian Suicide Rates

Alcohol and Drug Abuse and its resulting effect on suicide and violent deaths is a subject that is a cause of serious concern among Indians. Sid Fiddler, a member of the Waterhen band and a Masters student at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College wrote his Masters thesis on this very serious issue.

The following are exerts from Fiddler's paper:


Racism has been the underlying factor in the institutional dominance and cultural oppression that continues to function against the Indian people, culture and nations. Racism has meant denial of their rights to self-determination and a lack of access and opportunity to power and resources to change and resolve their own problems. It has resulted in negative psycho-social effects characterized by the relative deprivation and socio-cultural disintegration of Indian people.


"Education attainment levels are low with eighty percent of the adult population having no more than a Grade 10 education. Unemployment rates are incredibly high at approximately seventy percent. Of those that are employed, most are grouped in low-income occupational categories such as general labour, office and clerical, and sales and service. Many who are employed are underemployed or work only part time or on a temporary basis.

Average family income levels are approximately one-half that of the general population with a substantial proportion of that income derived from social assistance. Approximately 60-65 percent of the adult population receives some type of transfer payments from I.N.A.C. This does not take into account those living off reserve for more than one year whom maybe receiving provincial social assistance.

The number of single parent families is very high, particularly in the off-reserve population where a figure of 48 percent has been suggested by one study. On-reserve single parent families represent about twenty to twenty-five percent of the family units. Many families are newer families. Intervention in these family situations through child apprehensions and temporary or permanent wardship is a frequent event.

The relative deprivation and demographic characteristics of the Indian youth (15-29) is one factor that contributes to Indian youth suicides, which are suggested by the following:

1) Indian youth (15-29 years of age) represented 31.6 percent of the total registered Indian population, the second largest age grouping of the Saskatchewan registered Indian population; and this age group comprises 32.6 percent of the off reserve population of their particular age group.
2) This age group represents the highest unemployment age grouping in the present total unemployment rates estimated to be 75 percent for on reserve occupants and 45 percent in the urban areas.
3) The Indian dependency ratio is 2.3 times that of the general provincial population is probably higher among the Indian adolescents and young adults.
4) The drop out rate before completion of Grade XII is approximately 95 percent.
5) Another characteristic of this age group includes the highest probability of incarceration in federal and provincial prisons. About 70 percent of status Indians can be expected to be incarcerated in a provincial correctional centre by the age of twenty-five. About 14 percent of all status Indian women can expect to be incarcerated by the age of twenty-five.
6) The number of single parent families is very high, particularly in the off reserve populations where figures of 24 percent to 48 percent have been suggested. (FSIN 1984).


The incarceration rates for Indians are overwhelming. One in eight Indian men and one in fifty Indian women are likely to be incarcerated in a given year. Indian men are 25 times more likely and Indian women are 88 times more likely to be incarcerated than their non-Indian counterparts. It is not surprising that in this kind of social and economic environment alcohol and drug abuse are widespread."

The typical Indian child, whether urban or rural, spends his/her formative years in essentially an Indian world. The child's frame of reference, comparative process, and evaluative framework is provided by the Indian community to which he/she belongs. When an Indian child's world begins to enlarge, especially when he/she is thrown into interaction with the larger white society such as starting school, the self esteem that an Indian child generated in a basically Indian context can be threatened. This is particularly true in a society where Indians are perceived as belonging to an inferior subculture.

Alcohol And Drug Abuse And Its Relationship To Indian Suicide Rates


For many of the Indian people their first exposure to the larger white society began with the boarding industrial and residential Indian school system. Two to four generations of Indian families in Saskatchewan have been exposed to this residential school system. The fourth and fifth generations of Indian people have also been institutionalized and/or caught in a contemporary paradox resulting in psycho-social effects that parallel those of the residential school system. Many of the present Indian children and youth have grown up in urban centres and/or in white adoptive or foster homes, in institutionalized group homes and holding units as long term care and repeating offenders, and have been affected in the same way as the residential school system.

Psychologists have shown that the residential school system has caused serious emotional disturbances and personality disorders. The enforced separation of Indian children has resulted in the absence of extended family support, guidance, love, warmth, security, feelings of belongings and alienation from the Indian tribal belief systems, which supported the integrity of the individuals. The prolonged loneliness and the lack of emotional support have resulted in withdrawal and isolation among Indian children. The parenting skills, responsibility, knowledge and ways of relating communication skills have also decreased with each succeeding generation that has been in the residential school system. The incidences of child abuse among Indian people has been in part attributed to the early experiences of physical and psychological devaluation of many Indian parents who themselves grew up in these authoritarian institutions. The use of punitive discipline, child neglect and abuse and the lack of parenting skills have been traced to these early experiences in residential schools.

The history, philosophy, worldview and the Indian cultural way of life expressed through art, music, dances, literature and other forms of expression are omitted in the white institutional systems as are the Indian perspectives of realities of the present Indian situation. It severely limits the Indian people's ability to understand, create and maintain their own version of reality.

The FSIN study into Alcohol and Drug Abuse Among Treaty Indians in Saskatchewan reveals the frequency, rates and patterns of alcohol, drug and substance abuse among Saskatchewan Indian adolescents. A sample of 385 Indian adolescents aged 15-19 revealed the following results:

1) The pattern of drinking in the adolescent sample parallel those of the adult groups (82.1 percent), albeit at a reduced frequency.
2) Although adolescents do drink less frequently and in lesser amounts, they tend to binge and problem drink rather than indulging in chronic alcohol abuse.
3) Multiple drug abuse is very common. 85.5 percent of drug abusers used street drugs, which translated to 45.9 percent of the total adolescent sample. Solvent abuse seems to be very high at 10 percent of the total adolescent population.
4) 22.6 percent of the 15-19 age group have been drinking for three or more years.
5) 14.5 percent have been using drugs for three or more years.
6) Approximately one in ten adolescents are abusers of alcohol and/or drugs.
7) 70.6 percent of adolescents consume drugs (15-19), and the rate of drug consumption decreases with age.
8) "Sex of the respondent seems to be a significant factor. Females are less likely to consume (79.8 percent as compared to 87.1 percent) alcohol. They are also less likely to consume frequently (24.6 percent compared to 42.4 percent). The pattern continues with drug use. 50.3 percent of the female respondents reported using drugs in the last year compared to 61.6 percent of the male respondents. Frequent consumption was reported by 32.1 percent of the males and 19.7 percent of the females."
FSIN Alcohol and Drug Abuse Among Treaty Indians in Saskatchewan: Needs Assessment and Recommendations for Change. WMC Research Associates, 1984, p. 78.


A contemporary paradox that faces many Indian people particularly in the third, fourth and fifth generations, since white contact is the process of being caught between two cultures. This cultural confusion is especially acute during the adolescence and young Indian adult phase of life.

The identity conflict increases especially in Indian youth that attain higher academic education without knowledge and experience of their culture. For some, these "successes" lead to attitudes that perceive their Indian culture as backward, irrelevant, uncivilized, all in the past, and/or as a sub-culture.

Alcohol And Drug Abuse And Its Relationship To Indian Suicide Rates

These Indian people may see being an Indian in negative terms such as the poverty, low socio-economic lifestyle, powerlessness, alcohol/drug abuse and other manifestations of a weak and inferior subculture. They may adopt feelings of superiority and knowledge because they attained a higher standard of education and "white" lifestyle. Consequently in the process of trying to be "white", the traditional Indian knowledge, worldview, wisdom, experience and the way of life which could foster positive identity eludes them.

Many Indian people who are being caught between two cultures and lack the knowledge, opportunity and skills to survive or balance and integrate the two cultures, experience anomie depression. Anomie depression among Indian people is characterized by feelings of disorientation, confusion, lack of positive Indian identity and self image, insecurities, powerlessness, anger, shame, humiliation, pity, inferiority, apathy, fear of change and dependency. These feelings are especially heightened during the critical adolescence and young adult phase of life. If these feelings are not dealt with and faced, they develop into a pattern of negative behaviors, that are acted out internally and/or externally. In most cases, these feelings are internalized because Indian people have been told for so long that they are to blame that they have believed this "blaming the victim" ideology and behave like victims.


"Alcohol and drug abuse among Saskatchewan's Indian population represents the most serious and pressing social and health problem faced by Indian communities. The range and severity of negative social, economic and health factors that are known to be associated with alcohol and drug abuse are overwhelming. Alcohol and drug abuse has been correlated with negative socio-economic conditions, availability of alcohol/drugs, familial and peer group pressure and cultural conflicts resulting in anomie."

The Indian Elders feel that as a whole, the first generation of Indian people that were exposed to the industrial and residential school system were felt to be minimally influenced compared to later generations. The relative socio-economic independence, cultural intactness of the traditional Indian way of life ... and little exposure to the white society and alcohol were all factors that minimized chronic and crisis problems and situations that would affect Indian people in later generations.

Some of the Indian elders feel that the alcohol problems started when the second generation of Indian people (1920-1930) who went through the residential school system reached adulthood. This generation did not have the opportunities to practice the traditional Indian ceremonies and lifestyle because of the enforced ending and legal prohibition of Indian ceremonies and dances that started in the 1915-20 era. The decreasing traditional economic independence, length of socialization within the residential school system and increasing access to alcohol all contributed to the growing consumption of alcohol. Since alcohol was prohibited to Indian people up to 1951, the pattern of drinking until the supply of alcohol was exhausted and/or members passed out developed. Alcohol gradually replaced other Indian forms of social interactions as the focal point of socializing.

The third generation of Indian people is already affected in that they have grown up witnessing alcohol abuse and related problems in their families and/or communities and where alcohol abuse is a socially acceptable mechanism for positive interpersonal functioning and where the western dominant culture does not provide substitute outlets.

Alcohol And Drug Abuse And Its Relationship To Indian Suicide Rates

Moreover, this generation is increasingly caught in the paradox of two cultures, in that one to two generations of their parents and grandparents have been socialized in the residential school system, missionary schools and the paternalistic policies, practices and attitudes of institutional racism within the reserve level.

Among the fourth generation of Indian people there is an increasing majority of Indian youth and young adults caught between two cultures to a greater degree than the third generation of Indian people. In addition to the similar lifestyle problems and issues of the third generation, this generation of Indian people has been institutionalized in residential schools, correctional centres, juvenile detention and holding institutions, foster and adoption homes. The frequency and use of alcohol and drugs are more widespread in the fourth generation. In the FSIN study on alcohol and drug abuse among Treaty Indians in Saskatchewan, the findings indicated that "there is a very high probability that alcohol abuse levels are between thirty-five and forty percent of the adult population; similarly, drug abuse levels are between 20-25 percent of this population. Alcohol abuse among the adolescence population 15-19 years of age is in the ten to fifteen percent range, while drug abuse is in the five to ten percent range. The use of alcohol and drugs is widespread and patterns of "binge" consumption are a rule."

The Indian people who reside in urban areas experience institutional racism. The location of their homes, the racial composition of their neighborhood and schools, their social degradation and experiences of racial discrimination are a few examples. Drinking among off reserve Indians is often attributed to ease feelings of loneliness, rejection and anomie. In this generation we also see the greater prevalence of Indian women who are subjected to tensions which result from an alcoholic husband which results in the women starting to drink as well. However, Indian women, because of their traditional roles as caregivers, are generally less at risk in developing an alcohol/drug abuse lifestyle.

In the fifth generation, there are trends towards the use of chemical and solvent abuse among Indian adolescents. These observations parallel findings in research into chemical and solvent inhalant among American Indian adolescents which showed that the highest rates of current use of inhalants to be under 13 years of age, with the average age of first exposure to inhalants being eleven years old.


Once Indian people are caught in an alcohol/drug/solvent abuse situation, it becomes increasingly difficult to change their lifestyle. In most Indian communities, there are social and peer pressures exerted by friends and others to continue in that negative lifestyle. The social function of alcohol/drug use and abuse along with personal insecurities, self-concept and identity problems, are factors that contribute to reinforce the lifestyle. If some individuals should stop they can lose or be avoided by their friends and families who are still in that lifestyle. The lack of alternative programs and services through social, recreational, educational, cultural and economic endeavours also contribute and often forces people back into the alcohol/drug abuse lifestyle. The fear of being alone, apprehensions about accusations of trying to be superior and feelings of shame and "false pride" often prevent many Indian people from seeking help and assistance from their own people or programs.

As a result of alcohol abuse and its associated problems, Indian children are considerably more likely to experience more disruptions including loss of significant others, i.e. parents, relatives, siblings, friends through family break-ups, desertions and through suicides and alcohol related violent and accidental deaths. These combine to make the experience of significant and repeated loss of significant others a common phenomenon for many Indian adults and children, especially in the third, fourth and fifth generations.

Alcohol And Drug Abuse And Its Relationship To Indian Suicide Rates

Indian children are more likely than their non-Indian counterparts to experience the loss of parents, relatives, siblings and friends. In some instances, children witness violence leading to death, thus being directly traumatized.

Many of these behavioral problem children are sent off to boarding schools because of their home situation at an earlier age and as a result of losses caused by death, desertion or divorce, many other children have more than one caregiver in their lives, i.e.: foster homes.


All too often the result of behavioral problems created by racism both overt and institutionalized is suicide. Indian people, particularly young Indian people have rates of suicide and violent deaths that far exceed the rates for non-Indians.

An inspection of the comparison of mortality by leading causes of deaths among the Saskatchewan Indian and non-Indian populations brings out several peculiarities.

The most common cause of death for the Saskatchewan non-Indian population for the year 1980 is heart disease. It claims 23.5 percent of all those who died in the province. Neoplasm (cancer) is the second most common cause of death, which claims 21.6 percent of Saskatchewan non-Indian deaths. This compares with the Saskatchewan Indian population's heart disease deaths which claimed 17.8 percent and cancer which claimed 8.4 percent in the year 1980.

Another striking contrast between the two populations is the mortality rate due to suicidal, violent and accidental deaths. Among the Saskatchewan Indians, accidents, violence and suicide caused over 40 percent of the deaths. The accidental, violent and suicidal death rate for the non-Indian population in 1980 was 9.8 percent. Accidents, poisoning and violence causing 40.6 percent of all Saskatchewan Indian deaths in 1980.

In another statistical comparative research into Indian youth (15-29) suicides; research into British Columbia's Indian youth (15-29) suicides showed that this age group accounted for 62 percent of the total British Columbia Indian suicides in 1977, 81 percent in 1978 and 75 percent in 1979. These comparisons would suggest that the problems of Indian youth suicides in Saskatchewan are not unique to this province, but national in scope.

The Saskatchewan Indian suicide rates reveal the abrupt elevation of suicides from the 0-14 age category, peaking at the 15-24 age group, declining less steeply in the 25-44 and 45-64 age groupings, and disappearing in the 65+ age groupings. This compares to a rather gradual decline in suicide rates in both the Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian populations, which peaks at the 25-44 age grouping. The Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian suicide rates then descend just as gradually through to the age 75+ age grouping. The comparisons of suicides between the Indian and their Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian counterparts is also disproportionate after the age of sixty-five years, as it is in the adolescent and young adult age groups.

In comparing the populations' suicide rates by age groupings, marked contrasts appear from the 0-14 age grouping is 27.5 times higher and 33.6 times higher than the Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian counterparts respectively. In the 15-24 age grouping, the Saskatchewan Indian suicide rate is 11.5 times and 10.5 times higher than the Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian counterparts. The 25-44 age groups show a Saskatchewan Indian suicide rate of 3.6 times and 4.7 times higher than their respective Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian equivalents.

Alcohol And Drug Abuse And Its Relationship To Indian Suicide Rates

The suicide rate per 100,000 is about equal in the 45-64 age group for all the populations. The Saskatchewan Indian suicide rate after the age of sixty-five is non-existent in this five year time period, while the Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian suicide rates continue to recede to approximately 10 per 100,000 in the 65-74 age group and six per 100,000 in the 75+ age grouping.

The statistics also indicate that the male to female suicide rates of the Canadian and Saskatchewan non-Indian and Indian populations varies. The Canadian male to female suicide rate is 3:1, while that of the Saskatchewan non-Indian populations is 4:1, and Saskatchewan Indian population's male to female suicide ratio is 2:1. This indicates that the suicide discrepancy between sexes among the Saskatchewan Indian population is narrowed compared to the Canadian and Saskatchewan male to female suicide ratio. This difference could be generalized to the importance of racism and its overall impacts on Indian people versus socio-economic status and sex within the population.


When the Saskatchewan Indian suicide rates by Indian health zones and sex are compared to each other and the Canadian suicide rates; and by breaking down the 15-29 age groups into 15-19, 20-24 and 25-29 age groups; the rates, patterns and variances by the age grouping reveal the following information. The Fort Qu'Appelle Indian male in the 15-19 age are the highest risk group for the Saskatchewan Indian youth population. Their male suicide rate is 24 times higher than the Canadian male aged 15-19 group and four times and 3.5 times higher than their Prince Albert and North Battleford Indian male, aged 15-19 counterparts respectively.

The male suicide rate continued to be the highest in the 20-24 age group in the Fort Qu'Appelle zone, where the suicide rate is nine times higher than the Canadian suicide rate for the 20-24 age group. The Fort Qu'Appelle Indian male suicide rate in the 20-24 age group is also two times higher than their Prince Albert and North Battleford Indian male (20-24) counterparts. The pattern of suicide rates peaking in the 20-24 age groups is similar in the Canadian, North Battleford and Prince Albert male suicides, although, the Saskatchewan Indian male suicide rates in the two health zones are 4.5 times higher than the Canadian (20-24) male.

The Fort Qu'Appelle Indian male 25-29 age group suicide rate is 6.6 times higher than the Canadian male suicide rate in the 25-29 age group. The Prince Albert and North Battleford zone Indian male suicide rates are 3.3 times the Canadian suicide rate for the 25-29 age groups.

The pattern of female suicides is the same in the 20-24 age groups for the Canadian, Fort Qu'Appelle and North Battleford zones which peak in the 20-24 age group. While Prince Albert female population remains constant at about one suicide per 100,000 throughout the age groups, the Fort Qu'Appelle females in the 20-24 age group are a "high risk" suicide group with a suicide rate of 13.8 per 100,000.

This suicide rate for the Fort Qu'Appelle female (20-24) is forty-three times higher than the number of Canadian female (20-24) suicides and five times higher than the rate of North Battleford zone female (20-24) suicides.

The Fort Qu'Appelle females in the 15-19 age group account for 92 percent of all Saskatchewan Indian female suicides, which is sixty times higher than all Canadian female suicide rate for this age group; eleven times higher than the Prince Albert zone Indian female (15-19) rate, and one hundred times higher than the North Battleford zone Indian female (15-19) suicide rate.

The female suicide rates diminish distinctively in the 25-29 age group for the North Battleford and Fort Qu'Appelle zones. The suicide rate for the Fort Qu'Appelle females (25-29) continues to be the highest at a suicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 which is sixteen times higher than the Canadian female (25-29) suicide rate. The Fort Qu'Appelle females (25-29) are 6.4 times and four times more likely to commit suicide than the Prince Albert and North Battleford zones' Indian females in the 25-29 age group.

Alcohol And Drug Abuse And Its Relationship To Indian Suicide Rates

The socio-cultural disintegration of Indian people appears to have a marked effect on Indian youth (15-29), that represent the fourth and fifth generation, since enforced assimilation was implemented. In general, sauce-cultural disintegration factors such as Indian self-concept and identity, family disruptions, high drop out rates, alcohol and drug abuse and the length and frequency of Euro-Canadian contact can lead to suicide attempts and actual suicide. It has been found in studies on Indian adolescent suicide that the suicide victims tend to come from backgrounds where they have experienced many more disruptions in the early formative years of their lives. These disruptions include marked family discord, threat of an actual break-up of the family, loss of support of a significant other and extensive alcohol misuse by the family. Alcohol abuse has contributed to numerous family and social problems, including child and spouse abuse, child neglect and desertion and family break up. As a result of alcohol abuse and its associated problems, Indian children are considerably more likely to experience more disruptions, including loss of parents, relatives, siblings, and friends, through suicides and alcohol related homicides, violent and accidental deaths.


The paradox of being caught between two cultures and its related identity crisis problem and psycho-social effects on Indian adolescents manifests itself in feelings of low self worth, alienation, isolation causing Indian adolescents to be more prone to alcohol, drug and substance abuse. These feelings with alcohol and drug abuse may lead to suicides appear to have a more marked effect on southern Indian adolescents in Saskatchewan. Some possible explanations about this phenomenon include:

1) Longer and more frequent exposure and contact with the Euro-Canadian populations in the south in all areas, have resulted in greater upheavals in the cultural confusion. Indian communities in the north tend to be more isolated and are able to pursue traditional lifestyles on a seasonal basis. 2) The on and off reserve Indian population is another factor. In the Fort Qu'Appelle zone, the on and off reserve percentage is 50, while the Prince Albert zone has approximately 75 percent on reserve and 25 percent off reserve. The North Battleford zone has approximately 66.6 percent on reserve and 33.3 percent off reserve. The off reserve Indian population in southern Saskatchewan has migrated to urban areas much earlier and in greater numbers than in the northern reserve communities. It has been found that Indian people living in or near urban areas are 80 percent more prone to commit suicides, and on the Indian reserves where clustering occurs. These factors would explain the higher suicide rates of both male and female victims in the south.

The discrepancies between Indian male and female youth suicides may be generally related to sex roles within tribal societies. Indian women in general can and do retreat into the prescribed roles as mothers and caregivers that can explain the lower female suicide rate. Women in the northern communities also have the additional advantage of aboriginal language retention, along with traditional roles of tanning hides, crafts and other traditional responsibilities. The differences of suicide rates between the sexes could be further explained in terms of the greater loss the male has experienced in the erosion of the economic and traditional structure of the Indian society. The loss of role, male identity, self esteem and power has profoundly affected the Indian male adolescents going through this phase of development and growth. This might also explain why Indian males have an earlier age suicide and more frequent and greater rate of alcohol and drug abuse.

Associated with alcohol and drug abuse among the Indian adults are its related social problems. Among the 20-29 age groups, alcohol related loss of significant others through separation, divorce or death appears to be the triggering suicide factor, especially among males. Poor quality of interpersonal relationships account for most of the immediate stress preceding the suicides.

This may explain suicide epidemics consisting of two, three or even more cases together in time and place for many of the Indian male youth suicides, especially in extended family groups. That is one suicide may "trigger off" other suicide attempts. These clustering of suicides are also known to be higher at certain times of the year, especially in March, April, July or August.

The methods and timing of the Indian suicides also provides some information about the characteristics of Indian suicides. Most of the completed suicides in this research were by firearms and hangings, by both male and female victims. It gives one indication, that the victims did not have any intention of seeking help. This applies to both the male and female victims, especially in the adolescent population where firearms and hangings were the most preferred methods of suicides. In the adult and older Indian suicides, although firearms were the most common method, other methods such as alcohol and drug overdose were just as common. In addition to the method is the timing of suicides. In the United States, research findings indicated that most of the recorded suicides were alcohol and/or drug abuse related and occurred on the weekends in the hours between 2:00 and 6:00 am in or near the victim's residence.

The extremely high rates of suicide, violent and accidental deaths among the Saskatchewan Indian population indicates one measurement of the lack of well being among the Indian population. These high mortality rates are the result of the psychosocial impacts of relative deprivation and socio-cultural disintegration, rooted in racism.