Indications of a staggering level of prescription drug abuse by Aboriginal youths have left experts urging a more coordinated approach to the problem.
Some 18.4% of Inuit youths aged 12–17, 11% of Aboriginal youths and 8.8% of Metis youths living in urban Canada — as compared with 5.6% of non-Aboriginal youths — self-report abuse of prescription drugs including sedatives, stimulants and pain relievers, according to Cheryl Currie, an epidemiologist and an assistant professor of public health in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.
Responses to Health Canada’s national Youth Smoking Survey indicated that abuse of prescription painkillers was five times greater among Inuit youth than among non-Aboriginal youth, Currie said in a presentation of her findings at the Canadian Public Health Association’s annual conference in Edmonton, Alberta (http://resources.cpha.ca/CPHA/Conf/Data/2012/A12-086e.pdf).
The migration of many Inuit people to southern Canada has contributed to prescription drug abuse as youths in urban centres are exposed to greater degrees of racism and discrimination, Currie surmised. “Inuit people are urbanizing and within that population there are high rates of drug abuse. And there are also high rates of social exclusion as evidenced by this and other studies. It could be a contributing factor to drug abuse.”
Currie adds that the survey indicated a correlation between prescription drug abuse and feelings of exclusion at school. “I would like to see school policies that recognize that unequal treatment may be driving substance abuse in First Nations, Metis and Inuit children as a way of coping with adversity.”
Others, though, caution that the Currie’s conclusions are based on limited evidence. The sample size of the study is small, notes Russell Callaghan, a researcher at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health in Toronto, Ontario.
Other gauges of prescription drug abuse among Aboriginal youths are sparse. The recently released First Nations Regional Health Survey 2008/10 indicated that the use of sedatives/sleeping pills among First Nations youth almost tripled from 0.8% in 2003 to 2.2% in 2010 but the survey did not track the use of prescription opioids www.rhsers.ca/sites/default/files/RHS_Phase_II_-_Key_Findings.pdf).
With respect to Inuit youth, the data on prescription drug misuse lacks coherence because “there is no system in place to track usage,” says Gwen Watts, manager of health education programs for the Nunatsiavut government in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. But “you can get pretty much whatever [illicit drugs] you want in our communities,” adds the former manager of mental health and addiction programs for Nunatsiavut.
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