9th January 2018,

LGBT+ and Addiction: 4 Questions worth asking

Addiction in the LGBT+ community has reached a crisis point. Yet, to many in the LGBT+ community, speaking candidly about substance use, alcoholism, and addiction issues remains taboo.

It’s no secret that addiction and substance misuse is a common occurrence in the LGBT+ community. Addiction rates for LGBT+ persons are among the highest of those of any global demographic. It is a well-documented and unfortunate worldwide phenomenon, firmly rooted in (and entwined with) the trauma and stigma those living “alternative lifestyles” have been battling since time immemorial.

Yet, to many in the LGBT+ community, speaking candidly about substance use, alcoholism, and addiction issues remains taboo.

It’s time to change that.

1. How do substance misuse rates in the LGBT+ community compare?

According to 2015 data from the American National Survey on Drug Use and Health, adults defined as “sexual minority” were more than twice as likely as heterosexual adults to have used an illicit drug in the past year. Nearly a third of LGBT+ adults had used marijuana, compared to 12.9% of heterosexual adults. About 10% misused prescription pain relievers, compared to just 4.5% of heterosexual adults.

Additionally, studies from the U.S.-based SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services) have shown that substance abuse is 20-30% higher among LGBT+ youth than the general population.

2. Why the disproportionate numbers?

Being LGBT+ doesn’t make someone more susceptible to having substance abuse issues in and of itself. Sadly, being a minority does.

When looking at substance abuse in any community, there are strong arguments for both nature and nurture influences correlated with substance misuse or addiction. On the the nurture side of things, people who have grown up experiencing the harassment, family conflicts, bullying or violence associated with living as a minority have many things to cope with that others don’t. The resulting shame, guilt and depression create the fertile ground in which unhealthy self-medicating and coping behaviours like drug and alcohol use flourish.

While much progress has been made in freeing LGBT+ individuals from harrassment, bullying and violence, and while many families and society have grown much more accepting over the past few decades, the idea that the LGBT+ community is now free to live free from all forms of harassment, persecution and trauma is a laughable proposition at best. Recent studies have found that 43% of lesbian women and 34% of gay men have been affected by childhood trauma resulting from the lingering stigmas affecting the LGBT+ community.

Between being bullied in school, attacked and ridiculed by conservative or religious groups, and both subtly and openly discriminated against on a regular basis, individuals in the LGBT+ community experience significantly higher levels of stress and long-lasting trauma than most other groups.

And, as any addiction expert worth their salt will tell you, where you find high levels of stress and trauma, you’ll find people using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with it.

3. Why the silence?

Substance abuse and alcoholism is not an LGBT+ problem – it is a public health problem.

All too often, members of the LGBT+ community feel the need to hide or dismiss their substance use issues, since many would prefer not to add to their already inflated sense of ‘otherness’.

When in a social position where they’re already discriminated against in a number of different ways, publicly admitting to a drinking or drug problem can feel like adding fuel to the fire. Why give the world yet another reason to judge, criticise or discriminate?

Such fears (founded or not) contribute to an atmosphere where seeking desperately needed help from friend, loved one, or professionals can begin to feel like an insurmountable obstacle. That’s is a terrible shame, since LGBT+-specific help has become so widely available.

While the subject of alcoholism and addiction remains a taboo topic in many circles, in reality, the more the LGBT+ community talks and shares honest experiences with one another the more this underserved community can heal and move forward as a whole.

Discussing one’s recovery should – and can – be as commonplace as chatting about the latest season of Stranger Things. (We know that might seem like a longshot now but that’s our goal!)

That said, it’s not just the non-LGBT+ that may judge such problems harshly – judgements can often be brutal within the community itself. In a community where substance abuse can be the norm, it’s hard to admit or acknowledge there’s a problem. And once someone is in recovery, they may fear of coming across as judgmental to their friends continued behaviours or even ostracised.

4. What can be done?

To truly change this sad situation, as a community we must become more aware of substance misuse within our ranks. We must work to fix the underlying issues substance misuse stems from, like childhood bullying or perpetuating negative stereotypes. We must create a better environment for people to ask for help and receive the treatment they need and deserve. And, finally, we must make LGBT+-specific support, treatment, and resources more widely available across the globe.

While there are certainly queer-oriented Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) groups, 46% of lesbians and gay men seeking treatment have reported having a homophobic therapist.

For anyone to get the most out of today’s most effective treatment modalities and resources, they need to be ready and willing to ask for and accept, help. Feeling safe and secure while accessing substance misuse resources is essential regardless of the situation. This is especially true for those from sensitive/stigmatised demographics like LGBT+. All people feel more comfortable when they’re around others who share their worldview and common experiences, it’s how communities are built.

While not necessarily true of everyone (because generalising is silly), It only makes sense that LGBT+ persons may feel more comfortable, safe, heard and understood when sharing their stories, problems and successes in groups that have similar backgrounds. Even open and understanding members of the general population may not understand or know how to react to the unique experiences of the LGBT+ community.

Safe, supportive services that just “get it” are the only sensible way forward.

There are such services out there, they can be accessed with relative ease, and in many cases they are demonstrably superior in success rates than traditional, non-LGBT+ centred programmes at treating members of this community.

That’s a good thing.

The trend toward LGBT+-specific substance misuse treatment means a safe, healthier community.

But we can only get there if we start talking about it.

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