Addiction in the LGBTQ+ Community

LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals. This acronym is sometimes lengthened to LGBTQ or LGBTQIA to include queer, intersex, and asexual individuals.

Being LGBT can be challenging for individuals at any age due to social stigma and bigotry, but dealing with addiction can be a unique challenge for people that identify as members of the LGBTQ community.

How to Understand Addiction

Addiction is a chronic disease like asthma, arthritis, heart disease, or Crohn’s disease. Addiction affects the parts of the brain that control memory, motivation, and pleasure.

Many people hear “addiction” and automatically think of drug addiction or alcoholism. However, a person can become addicted to behaviors, including food, sex, gambling, shopping, and even exercise.

There are four main stages of the addiction process:

  • Initial Use/Experimentation
  • Recreational/Social Use
  • Abuse
  • Dependency and Addiction

Addiction Trends in the LGBTQ+ Community

The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) discovered higher rates of substance use and addiction amongst LGBTQ individuals compared to the general population.

Below is some additional information about addiction trends within the LGBTQ community:

  • 37.6% of sexual minority adults (18 and older) report using marijuana compared to 16.2% of the rest of the adult population.
  • 9% of the LGBTQ community used opioids the year prior compared to 3.8% of the heterosexual community.
  • In 2015, SAMHSA discovered that 9% of the general population suffers from substance abuse compared to 20% to 30% of LGBTQ individuals.
  • People who identify as gay or lesbian are more than twice as likely to suffer from a severe tobacco or alcohol use disorder than their heterosexual counterparts.
  • People who identify as bisexual are nearly three times as likely to suffer from addiction.
  • People who struggle to identify with a sexual orientation are five times as likely to have a substance abuse problem.

The struggles with substance use and abuse don’t just affect individuals 18 or older, and LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk for developing issues with substance abuse than their peers. For instance, transgender students between the ages of 11 and 17 are 2.5 times more likely to use illicit drugs such as methamphetamines and cocaine than their cisgender counterparts.

Risk Factors for Substance Abuse in the LGBTQ Community

Being an LGBTQ person in certain parts of the U.S. can be scary and stressful. They must figure out how to navigate life in a predominantly heterosexual world.

With all the obstacles that people in the LGBTQ community have to deal with daily, it’s no wonder this community suffers from higher rates of substance abuse than the overall population.

Some of the challenges LGBTQ individuals regularly face include:

  • Loss of employment or being passed over for promotions
  • Rejection and lack of support from family, friends, and loved ones after coming out
  • Discrimination based on their sexual identity
  • Discrimination based on their gender identity and how they present publicly
  • Hate crimes, emotional and physical abuse, and public humiliation
  • Struggling to come to grips with who they are as a person

Discrimination and Social Challenges

Despite overall progress throughout the United States, people in the LGBTQ community are sometimes still treated as second-class citizens. They may find themselves discriminated against or even victims of a hate crime.

A study by the National Institute on Health revealed that more than two-thirds of LGBTQ adults experience discrimination for their LGBTQ identity at least once in their lifetime.

This poor treatment doesn’t always come from strangers; sometimes, people very close to them—including family members, friends, loved ones, co-workers, or acquaintances—may also mistreat LGBTQ individuals.

For LGBTQ individuals, turning to drugs or alcohol might seem like the only way they can escape the pain, suffering, and fear.

Lack of Support

There are many reasons why an LGBTQ person may be afraid to declare their orientation (colloquially known as “coming out.”) Instead, they may choose to stay “in the closet,” no matter how much it might hurt them mentally. They may also resort to social isolation, afraid to interact with peers for fear of ridicule, bullying or worse.

In addition, the prevalence of discrimination within the homes of LGBTQ youth and young adults often leads to them being kicked out by their parent(s). About 40% of young people experiencing homelessness also identify as LGBTQ.

While some might turn to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain, there are many safe places to talk to someone healthily.

Some great resources and tools include:

Unclear Self-Identity

Another common struggle amongst those in the LGBTQ community is truly understanding how to understand who they are. For many, they have heard that being gay was wrong all their lives. Sometimes a person may grow up in a religious or conservative environment where the idea of being queer is considered a sin or that it is wrong.

After a while, they might begin to think so little of themselves that they might start to believe something is wrong with them.

Drugs or alcohol might seem like an easy way to forget their mental dilemma, even if it is just for a little while.

Comorbidity

Living a secret life can take a significant toll on someone mentally. Not only do they feel like they have a big secret that they have to keep hidden, but they also might feel like they have to pretend to be someone they are not.

Mental Health Disorders and Mental Illness

Unfortunately, those in the LGBTQ community don’t just suffer from substance abuse and addiction at a disproportionately high level; they also suffer from mental health issues at a higher rate.

Some of the common psychological and emotional issues that those in the LGBTQ community experience include:

  • Anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicidal attempts
  • Higher-than-normal levels of stress
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Sexual abuse and sexual assault

Addiction Treatment Options for LGBTQ Individuals

Many people in the LGBTQ community are afraid to seek help for their substance abuse and addiction issues because they fear they will be treated differently due to their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

Fellow group therapy participants and counselors might not be able to relate to some of their unique struggles and might even make inappropriate or homophobic remarks.

Luckily, some substance abuse treatment centers specialize in helping addicts in the LGBTQ community.

LGBTQ-Specific Treatment Centers

LGBTQ-specific treatment centers can help with the unique needs that people in the LGBTQ community face, including the mental and emotional struggles they deal with on top of substance abuse and addiction.

While they might face many of the same addiction struggles as their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts, many challenges they live with are unique to LGBTQ people.

LGBTQ-specific treatment centers can help those within the LGBTQ community address some of the more unique struggles they face, including:

  • Discrimination
  • Homophobia
  • Coming out
  • Being rejected by friends, family members, and loved ones

Inpatient Rehab

Inpatient treatment allows patients to live at the facility while going through rehab. The services offered to those in inpatient treatment vary based on the facility, but most facilities provide around-the-clock medical care and nutrition.

Inpatient facilities that cater to those in the LGBTQ community offer therapists and healthcare professionals who are members of that community or have special training to help their LGBTQ patients with their unique needs.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient addiction treatment programs are available for people in the LGBTQ community who cannot live at a facility while they go through treatment.

Unlike the more structured inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment allows patients to come to the facility daily for treatment and then return to their everyday lives.

Other Addiction Treatment Services for LGBT Individuals

People in the LGBTQ community have access to more than inpatient and outpatient rehab programs.

Services such as medical detox, mental health treatment, and medication-assisted treatment provide additional support and guidance throughout the treatment process.

Medical Detox Services

The first step of addiction treatment is the detoxification process. Detoxification, or detox, is the body’s process when it stops getting drugs or alcohol. Withdrawal commonly occurs during the detox process.

Due to the side effects of withdrawal, the detox process should always occur under the care and supervision of trained medical professionals. Medical detox services are available at dedicated detox centers and some treatment centers.

Medical detox is available at both an inpatient and an outpatient level, depending on the severity of the addiction.

Detoxing on your own can be incredibly dangerous and potentially life-threatening. Do not attempt to self-detox without speaking to a medical professional first.

LGBTQ Mental Health and Counseling Services

Therapy and counseling services are a critical part of addiction treatment. Therapy sessions help recovering addicts identify the triggers and behaviors that led to their addiction.

Individuals in the LGBTQ community often face challenges and dilemmas unique to their life experience as someone not cisgender or not heterosexual. Specialized mental health and counseling services can help LGBTQ individuals specifically, including individual counseling, group therapy, and peer support groups.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Some substances are more complex and more dangerous to detox from than others. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is offered for substances like narcotics and opioids to help make the detox and withdrawal more comfortable and safe.

Some common medications given to those in MAT include:

Are You Looking for LGBTQ-Specific Addiction Treatment?

Individuals in the LGBTQ community should be afforded the same fundamental rights as everyone else. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Because of the way that they are often unfairly stereotyped and treated, people in the LGBTQ community struggle with substance abuse and addiction at a disproportionately high rate.

Call the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or visit their online program locator to find addiction treatment options in your area.

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

6 references
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, February 29). Substance use among gay and bisexual men. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/msmhealth/substance-abuse.htm

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, September 23). Substance use and suds in LGBTQ* populations. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://nida.nih.gov/drug-topics/substance-use-suds-in-lgbtq-populations

  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, C. for B. H. S. and Q. (n.d.). Sexual orientation and estimates of adult substance use and mental health: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and health. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-SexualOrientation-2015/NSDUH-SexualOrientation-2015/NSDUH-SexualOrientation-2015.htm

  4. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT). SAMHSA. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.samhsa.gov/medication-assisted-treatment

  5. Warning signs of drug abuse. Tennessee State Government – TN.gov. (n.d.). Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.tn.gov/behavioral-health/substance-abuse-services/treatment—recovery/treatment—recovery/prescription-for-success/warning-signs-of-drug-abuse.html

  6. McCabe, S. E., Bostwick, W. B., Hughes, T. L., West, B. T., & Boyd, C. J. (2010, October). The relationship between discrimination and substance use disorders among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults in the United States. American journal of public health. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2937001/

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