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The Relationship Between the LGBTQ Community and Drug Addiction
Drug abuse and addiction has been a longstanding concern amongst the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning) community. Members of the LGBTQ community suffer from higher rates of substance use compared to those of the general population. In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), substance use disorders affect 20-30% of the LGBTQ population, compared to only 9% of the population as a whole. SAMHSA also reported that 39.1% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults used illicit drugs in the past year, compared to only 17.1% of heterosexual adults. These statistics can be largely contributed to the unique set of challenges this community faces on a daily basis.
In order to comprehend the struggles LGBTQ individuals endure, it’s important to understand the following terms:
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual are terms that describe sexual orientations. Lesbians are women who are sexually and romantically attracted to other women, homosexual (gay) men are sexually and romantically attracted to other men, and bisexuals are sexually and romantically attracted to both men and women.
Transgender is a term which describes a person who identifies with a gender at odds with their sex assigned at birth. Transgender is not a sexual orientation, but a gender identification. Trans people can claim straight, lesbian, gay, or bisexual orientation.
Similar to all other demographics, unresolved trauma is often the root cause of addiction for members of the LGBTQ community. Many LGBTQ individuals have histories of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse which sets the stage for their need to self-medicate.
Challenges Faced by the LGBTQ Community
People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender often face social stigma, discrimination, and other challenges that people who identify as heterosexual never have to experience. They also face a greater risk of harassment and violence. As a result of these and several other stressors, sexual minorities are at increased risk for addiction and various mental health issues.
Discrimination and Prejudice
The most common reason that LGBTQ individuals suffer from higher rates of mental health disorders and resulting substance abuse is because of the discrimination and prejudice they face as a minority group. People in the LGBTQ community are more likely to experience social stigma, rejection, and ostracism from society, and even from their families. These homophobic, negative experiences give rise to mental health issues that can push them toward substance use. In fact, a 2017 study reported that 58% of the LGBTQ youths surveyed listed discrimination as one of the main reasons for their drug and alcohol use.
Additionally, LGBTQ people often face violent behaviors such as bullying, teasing, harassment and physical assault. This can lead to feelings of constant fear, shame, and defenselessness. The transgender community experiences this perhaps the most in today’s society and has led to rates of addiction that are “disproportionately higher” than even lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. In response to an outside world full of negative messages about what it means to be gender nonconforming and/or attracted to people of the same sex, many come to view themselves as deeply flawed, unlovable, unworthy, and hopeless. This constant stream of homophobia produced by others can then lead to internalized homophobia – the belief that being LGBTQ is wrong and unnatural, which is accompanied by feelings of self-loathing, insecurity, and anxiety. Recent studies found that up to 55% of LGBTQ individuals suffer from some level of internalized homophobia.
In the United States, the LGBTQ community is also the only group of people that it is still legal to discriminate against. Twenty-nine states still offer no protection against workplace discrimination based on sexual identity, thirty-two states still offer no protection against discrimination on gender identity, and the military only recently repealed the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011. As a result, 52% of the LGBTQ population lives in states that offer them no protection against workplace discrimination.
Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
These experiences of social prejudice and fear of rejection can lead to higher levels of stress, anxiety, isolation, and depression amongst those who identify as LGBTQ, which can all increase the risk of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. In fact, roughly 58% of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals deal with anxiety and depression at some point in their lives. That rate is 2.5 times higher than that of their straight and gender-conforming counterparts. People of the LGBTQ community are also at a higher risk than the general population for suicidal thoughts and attempts. The discrimination that LGBTQ people face and the pressure they sometimes feel from their family or communities, puts them at greater risk for poor emotional health and resulting substance abuse.
Limited Treatment Services
Addiction treatment facilities are often unable to meet the unique needs of LGBTQ people struggling with both substance misuse and mental health. In order to provide a full-spectrum of care, health professionals need to account for their patients’ sexual identities and the troubles they face on a regular basis. A national study found that of the 854 treatment programs that reported to have specialized treatment services for LGBTQ individuals, only 62 confirmed these services actually existed during a telephone follow-up. This means that about 70% of treatment facilities that boasted specialized LGBTQ services were lacking, and the options offered are actually no different than those provided to non-LGBTQ people. More programs that are designed specifically for this community need to be developed as more options make it easier for them to seek the treatment they need for co-occurring disorders.
In addition to the limited LGBTQ-specific treatment services available, LGBTQ individuals may be reluctant to seek treatment or disclose their sexual orientation during treatment out of concern that health providers might be homophobic or prejudiced against them. In fact, a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report mentioned that stigma, intolerance, and open discrimination were the most substantial barriers to substance abuse prevention and treatment among the LGBTQ community.
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LGBTQ Community and Self-Medication
Marijuana and Amphetamines. In fact, research indicates that LGBTQ people use these drugs at a rate 2-4 times greater than that of the broader population. LGBTQ substance abuse must be understood within the context of the stigma, prejudice, and discrimination to which LGBTQ people are constantly exposed to. The Center for Addiction and Mental Health notes that “isolation, alienation, and discrimination from a homophobic society is stressful,” and escaping those feelings is one of the main reasons that LGBTQ individuals use drugs and alcohol.
Rather than seeking professional help to treat any underlying mental health disorders (due to fear of further discrimination or not having the financial means to do so), many LGBTQ individuals turn to their own solution – drugs. The high that drugs produce allows for distraction from the negative thoughts and experiences that the LGBTQ community endure daily. Substance use then becomes a means to mitigate emotional pain and reduce stress. This can seem like the perfect fix – but it’s only temporary and actually makes mental health conditions worse in the long run. Self-medication with drugs or alcohol can increase negative emotions and does very little to treat the underlying condition; however, many LGBTQ individuals continue this destructive cycle as they believe it’s their only option.
Drugs of Choice Within the LGBTQ Community
While those who identify as LGBTQ can experiment with and use many different drugs, there are five that are most commonly abused within the LGBTQ community.
LGBTQ individuals use tobacco more than those who identify as heterosexual in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 5 LGBTQ adults smoke cigarettes compared to 1 in 6 straight adults. This statistic increases when adolescents are factored in. A 2016 SAMSHA survey reported that past-month cigarette use was higher among bisexual, gay, and lesbian teen and adult populations than heterosexuals. This group has a past-month smoking rate of 32.2%, compared to 20.6% among heterosexual people.
Amphetamines are also popular drugs of choice amongst the LGBTQ community. Amphetamines include stimulants that produce intense feelings of euphoria, such as Cocaine, Meth, and Adderall. Recent studies show that gay men are 12.2 times as likely to use these drugs than their heterosexual peers. In particular, gay and bisexual men are more likely to use Meth, which is troubling as it has been linked to increased risk of HIV infection. While these substances can bring periods of increased happiness and sociability, regular use can quickly lead to dependence and addiction.
Many LGBTQ individuals also use Marijuana to help reduce anxiety and other mental health problems. Nearly a third of LGBTQ adults (30.7%) used Marijuana in the past year, compared to only 12.9% of heterosexual adults.
Heroin is one of the most dangerous Opioid drugs available and carries a high risk for overdose, specifically if injected. Lifelong experiences with homophobia, discrimination or abuse can leave members of the LGBTQ community more likely to try this dangerous drug as a way to numb the pain of their experiences. In fact, lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are 3 times more likely to develop an opioid use disorder compared to heterosexual adults. Additionally, gay men are 9.5 times more likely to use Heroin than straight men.
The 2016 SAMHSA report found that past-month alcohol drinking rates were higher among gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults (63.6%) than among heterosexual adults (56.2%). The survey also found that a higher percentage of LGBTQ individuals reported past-year binge drinking (five or more drinks on a single occasion) than heterosexual adults. By some estimates, between 20-25% of the LGBTQ community has moderate to severe alcohol dependency. Of the LGBTQ people in treatment for substance use disorders, the majority of them cited engaging in alcohol consumption earlier than their heterosexual counterparts.
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Find LGBTQ Addiction Treatment Today
LGBTQ individuals have to deal with a unique set of challenges that all can contribute to substance abuse. LGBTQ-specific treatment centers are sensitive to the needs of the LGBTQ community and can address an underlying aspects that may have contributed to drug addiction. Whether you identify as LGBTQ and are struggling with addiction or are a loved one of someone who is, know that there are resources available and recovery from addiction is possible. Contact a dedicated treatment provider to learn about your rehabilitations options today.
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