Friday, August 17, 2007

Drug use, addiction welcome some to U.S.

Immigration - A study finds the pressures of adapting to a new country and culture can often lead to substance abuse.

Adapting to the United States might come with its own side effects. As Spanish speakers learn English, they also turn to illegal drug use, with English-speaking Latinos reporting illegal drug use at a rate 13 times higher than their Spanish-speaking peers, reports an Oregon State University sociologist who studied Washington residents.

The pressures of immigrating can fuel an existing addiction or spark new substance abuse, Portland-area drug and alcohol treatment experts agree. Immigrants face learning a language, finding a home and working two or more jobs, and they often grapple with loneliness.

"That's exactly what we see," says Chris Farentinos, director of ChangePoint, a Portland-based drug and alcohol treatment center where 20 percent of clients speak Spanish. "When they arrive, there's a period of time where they're very poor. As their language skills increase, their disposable income is also increasing, and they have more access to drugs and alcohol."

Other sociologists have studied the effects of acculturation on drug and alcohol use, said Scott Akins, an OSU sociologist and lead author of a study that will be published next spring in the Journal of Drug Issues. But those studies have focused on areas, such as California, with large Latino populations.

Akins said he and his three co-authors are the first to look at the Pacific Northwest, where Latino immigrants tend to be more dispersed and isolated from the churches, cultural centers and family that would tie them to their culture.

"Basically, it's a package deal," Akins said. "When immigrants come to us, they oftentimes get greater job security, more economic benefits, certainly a better quality of life. But along with this you also get another type of thing, such as a much more tolerant attitude toward drug use and a more tolerant attitude toward sex."

Akins used data from a 2003 telephone survey of 6,713 adult Washington residents, 1,690 of them Latino but who were not necessarily recent immigrants. Of those, about 700 answered survey questions in Spanish and about 950 answered in English. Akins measured their level of acculturation by which language they spoke. The study showed 6.4 percent of non-Latino whites reported using illegal drugs in the previous month, compared with 7.2 percent of English-speaking Latinos and less than 1 percent of Spanish speakers.

English speakers also reported more binge drinking.

Drug and alcohol abuse cut across cultures and it's not as though people from Latin America are immune to addiction, says Michael Ann Benchoff, program manager for the Family Latino Outreach and Addictions Treatment program, which serves homeless, Spanish-speaking addicts.

Benchoff questioned whether Spanish speakers trusted the survey-takers enough to answer truthfully about their drug and alcohol habits. Addiction carries a stigma in Latino culture, and adults may want to conceal their drug use from a stranger.

"The perspective is, you don't talk about it," Benchoff said. "You don't talk about mental health. They see that as labeling them as crazy or completely morally corrupt."

Akins acknowledged that underreporting by Spanish speakers might skew his research, but "I don't think it would explain away the findings," he said.

Immigrants tend to arrive in the United States healthy, Farentinos said: "You have to be healthy enough to have the guts to do it." Once they've developed an addiction, a deep sense of shame might prevent them from seeking treatment.

ChangePoint's clients come to it through the court system, usually after domestic violence or driving under the influence lands the person in front of a judge. About half the center's clients receive outpatient services three times a week.

Among Latino immigrants, both new and longtime addicts respond to drug and alcohol treatment that allows them to feel as though they are part of a community, Benchoff said, a feeling they tend to lose upon immigration.

author: Paige Parker, 503-221-8305,