Treatment for Methamphetamine Users: Traditional Healing for a Modern Problem

                It's one o'clock Sunday afternoon and Joe* is on his way to Alpha House in Billings, MT, to pick up his brother Allen for a sweat lodge ceremony.  However, Allen must be back to the Alpha House promptly by four.  A late arrival means he will have to go back to prison and finish his sentence.

Alpha House is a halfway house for inmates, and Allen is serving out the last part of a sentence for a crime he committed while addicted to alcohol and methamphetamine.  Allen's incarceration includes treatment.  He goes to AA meetings and sees a counselor, but his treatment also includes traditional sweat lodge ceremonies. 

            Many non-Indians may think that all American Indians are alike, but each is different culturally. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes reaching from coast to coast across the United States and a lot more living in South America and Canada. Different American Indian cultures attempt to solve drug problems in a variety of ways. Some treatment programs have incorporated healing treatments from the tribe(s) located near the treatment centers. These traditional methods provide support for tribal members by using their own American Indian culture.

What To Expect of Withdrawal From Meth?

Being addicted to meth is a bad situation. Meth is a highly addictive drug.  Treatment providers say that meth addicts are the most difficult of all drugs users to treat. The nature of the treatment program for someone addicted to meth depends on the severity of the addiction. Withdrawal may take as long as 6-8 months and about 3 days to a week for the body to eliminate the drug.  Once in this withdrawal stage, the meth users may feel depressed, anxiety, fatigue, paranoia, aggression and often think life is not as pleasurable without the drug. Short-term use causes the body to increase wakefulness and decrease appetite.  Long-term use will definitely cause some damage to the brain and to every organ in the body. Meth has toxic effects to the body and may even lead to death.

Prolonged use of meth causes changes in the brain including addiction. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and drug use.  The meth addict will experience a relapse if they are in an environment with drug-using friends or relatives. This is where community support and family ties come in to encourage the former drug user to lead a positive life and give them strength to carry on.         

Who Should Be Committed for Treatment?

            Many treatment providers for meth users say that the only reason meth users come to a treatment program is because they are in trouble with the law. Rarely do they see meth users come to treatment voluntarily. Other reasons for entry are mental or emotional problems or problems at work or at school.

What Are the Types of Programs at Treatment Centers?

At this time, the most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction change the user's attitudes and thoughts about life. These approaches are designed to help modify the patient’s thinking, expectancies, and behaviors and to increase their skills in coping with various stressful situation. Methamphetamine recovery support groups also help the addict to a long-term drug-free recovery.

            There are currently no particular pharmacological (drug) treatments for dependence on methamphetamine. Pharmacological treatments for cocaine dependence have not met with much success in controlled clinical studies. However, antidepressant medications are helpful in combating the depressive symptoms frequently seen in methamphetamine users who recently have become abstinent. According to Deena Vandersloot, director of the Methamphetamine Cross Site Treatment Project, located Billings, Montana, valium is given when to crank users who are having withdrawals.

What Are Traditional Treatment Programs?   

            Native American people look to their cultures to answer the questions that face them on a daily basis.  Culture gives them a sense of place in the world, and provides them with a worldview that fits that positive structure in life.  Darrel Rides At The Door, a Blackfeet counselor says, "When you work with Native Americans, you have to incorporate their cultural healing processes." There are a variety of traditional treatments used, all focused on changing the meth user's the way of life.       

The Four Directions: Medicine Wheel

One method is called “The Four Directions: Medicine Wheel.” In this program in Minneapolis, the recovering addict works towards living a healthy life by integrating a well-balanced life-style that is physically, emotionally, and spiritually stable. 

Illustration by Robin Rexroat

Many American Indian cultures believe that the Medicine Wheel is a symbol of an environmental concept. The wheel symbolizes organized knowledge of the wholeness of life and the significance of health and balance. It is a circle divided into four quadrants with different colors representing the four directions.

This program has four steps. The first step embraces the balance and wellness of the individual. The next step involves letting the individual know that the addiction is known as a bad spirit to the body and easy to overcome. The third step entails understanding the reasons why they have an addiction problem. The fourth step is the healing time, in which the addict slowly overcomes the problem by understanding who they are as an American Indian.  All four steps intersect each other and speak to the understanding of the American Indian health wellness.

Sweat Lodge

A sweat lodge is where Indian people purify themselves with steaming hot rocks and is similar to a sauna. Sweat lodge ceremonies are frequently combined with other traditional treatments.

Medicine Men

Medicine men treat illness, but also provide guidance and protection as well as improvement in life. American Indian drug users may go to a medicine man for treatment. 

Native American Church or Peyote Church

Another traditional treatment the Native American Church or peyote church incorporates Christianity and the use of the peyote plant. It is comprised of praying, singing, eating peyote, and quietly contemplating about life. The Peyote church encourages it members to follow the "Good Red Road," which includes not using drugs and alcohol.

The Extended Family and Clan

The nuclear family and extended family, including clan mothers and clan fathers provide a positive support for the drug user to cope with the problem and not run away from it. 

The Talking Circle

The talking circle is used to motivate the individual to speak about their problems with the drug to other recovering addicts. It is conducted in a circle, because the circle is never ending. The participants pass an object such as an eagle feather around the circle to the person who is willing to talk to the group. The Blackfeet Chemical Dependency Center uses the talking circle as part of its treatment program.

The Sundance

Another traditional treatment is the sundance, a summer ceremonial that includes dancing, fasting, praying and piercing. Sundancers make sacrifices to the Great Spirit to obtain help or guidance. They also participate in sweats and prayer ceremonies all year long.


Many Native Americans realize the connection between traditional culture and a healthy lifestyle.  At a substance abuse program located at Crow Agency, Montana, a poster reads, "Drugs and Tradition Don't Mix."                                                                                                                                       

*These names have been changed.

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