Drug and Alcohol Addiction in LGBTQ+ Community

Addiction to drugs or alcohol is hard enough to handle on its own. You “hit bottom,” and finally realize that you need to ask for help in recovering from the addiction.

But now imagine that you’re gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Where do you go to seek help? Is it as easy for you to seek help as it would be for a heterosexual person?

Go ahead…try to imagine asking for help as an LBGTQ+ individual

First, you would start your search for recovery assistance knowing that – sadly – you are almost as likely to encounter discrimination and homophobia in the addiction recovery community as you are in the rest of the “straight” world. A few recovery facilities don’t even offer rehab or counseling services to gay people.

Among the facilities that are more compassionate and see all people with substance abuse problems as fellow human beings and deserving of help, many other problems exist. For example, the question that arises for many LBGTQ+ addicts is, “Will the doctors, psychologists, and counselors at this facility ‘speak my language,’ and be able to relate to me and the pressures that formed my identity and contributed to me seeking relief from them in substance abuse?”

Don't stop there…keep imagining

Further imagine that you’re a homeless gay teenager and find a recovery facility, and the first thing the counselor does is to suggest “family therapy.” Well, if you’re like one in four homeless gay kids in America, the whole reason you are homeless in the first place is that your family threw you out of the house when you “came out” to them as gay. Or imagine being an adult and being told that your life partner “doesn’t qualify” for family therapy during your recovery because they’re the same sex as you.

Imagine that you identify as gender non-binary and you are expected to develop a trusting relationship with a counselor who just doesn’t get that you prefer to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she.”

Finally, imagine that you are active in the LGBTQ+ “scene” and that many of your social activities take place in clubs that are filled with alcohol and drugs. When your counselor suggests that after you leave rehab you should try to not associate with other addicts, what do you do? Abandon your whole community of friends and try to find a whole new set of sober friends, all while trying to stay sober yourself? That’s a lot to handle, and an additional pressure that merely adds to the ones you’re already under.

These issues aren't imaginary…they're real

All of the above issues are just an “exercise of imagination” for those who are not LBGTQ+. If you are, you already know about these pressures. You live with them every day.

This article is for you, or for those who love you, and who want to help you get the recovery assistance you need. In the article we will examine some of the facts and science surrounding what it’s like to deal with substance abuse in the LBGTQ+ community. We’ll also share some of the Good News – that there ARE abundant addiction recovery resources out there specially designed for people who identify as other than heterosexual.

First, the Facts – The Alarming Statistics of LGBTQ+ Substance Abuse

A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that adults who identify as LGBTQ+ have higher rates of substance abuse and co-occurring mental problems than heterosexual adults. The survey also found that while members of the LGBTQ+ community are more likely than heterosexuals to seek treatment, there are significant issues that can stand in the way of getting the recovery assistance they need.

Substance abuse is a huge problem within the LGBTQ+ community and is much more common than in any other demographic. As many as 30% within the LGBTQ+ community abuse substances, compared to 9% in the heterosexual population.

In many cases, the drugs and alcohol are a way for people to cope with the fact that as a group they have to deal with more issues than a heterosexual person. As a result of these issues, LGBTQ+ individuals can experience higher levels of stress, social stigmas, and discrimination. This, in turn can lead to much higher substance abuse rates compared to heterosexuals. For example:

People within the LGBTQ+ community are 200% more likely to use tobacco than heterosexual and non-transgender people.

25% of people who identify as LGBTQ+ abuse alcohol; in comparison to about 5-10% of heterosexuals.

Gay men are over 3.5X more likely to use marijuana than heterosexual men. They are also 12.2X more likely to use amphetamines, and 9.5X more likely to use heroin.

Many additional studies have been conducted in this area, and their findings are:

  • LGBTQ+ youth is up to 300% more likely to succumb to drug addiction.
  • A quarter of LGBTQ+ individuals abuse alcohol, whereas the fraction is less than one-tenth for the general populace.
  • A larger percentage of LGBTQ+ people have experimented with harmful drugs: 63% have experimented with Ecstasy, 63% have experimented with marijuana, 48% have experimented with amyl nitrate, and 45% smoke more than 10 cigarettes daily.

Here’s a chart of other drug use, based on data from the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The dark-colored lines represent percentages in the LGBTQ+ community, and the light-colored lines represent the corresponding percentages among heterosexuals:

From these statistics, we can easily see that yes, there IS a substance abuse problem within the LGBTQ+ community. From alcohol to drugs the issue is present, but the deeper question is “What can we do about it?”

If a person needs help for addiction, they usually go to rehab. However, for people within the LGBTQ+ community, this can be a bit more difficult. Sometimes they’re denied treatment, and sometimes even if they find it they feel like an outcast and relapse. Fortunately, there are specific rehabs designed for LGBTQ people.

WHY Addiction Is More of a Problem in LGBTQ+ Communities

It’s not easy being gay. Growing up LBGTQ+ in America means experiencing a lifetime of prejudice, abuse, injustice, and discrimination that heterosexuals rarely have to experience. For many people, this fundamental life experience started early, the moment they realized that they identify more with non-mainstream sexuality than with mainstream sexuality.

This realization makes them feel literally non-mainstream themselves, and thus “different.” And sadly, those who are different in society are often greeted with prejudice, abuse, injustice, and discrimination. To this day – and despite laws designed to eradicate such things and ensure equal treatment for all – these things are still commonplace.

LGBTQ+ individuals encounter these reactions whenever they attempt to do normal, everyday things that most people take for granted. Like trying to rent or buy a house, or seeking employment, or just trying to live openly as who they are. All of this causes stress, and puts tremendous pressure on them. This constant pressure can easily result in insecurity, poor self-image, loneliness, and “acting out” behavior – a perfect “recipe” for wanting to find refuge from it in substance abuse.

In the following sections, we’ll deal with some of the common “stress triggers” that lead to addiction in LGBTQ+ individuals.

Fear of persecution and trauma from past instances of it

Fear of discrimination and persecution is traumatizing. It leads many who identify as LGBTQ+ to hide their sexual identity and live a stressful “double life” in order to conform. Such individuals may be reluctant to speak openly with doctors and to seek rehabilitation because they’re afraid that they’ll be “outed.”

But even people who are openly LGBTQ+ experience other “stress triggers” during a normal day that a heterosexual person wouldn’t:

  • In many areas, LGBTQ+ individuals live with a very real fear of being attacked for the “offense” of walking down the street. This can lead to a constant state of anxiety.
  • It is still legal in 29 U.S. states to discriminate against gay and transgender individuals in the workplace. They can be denied employment or fired simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The Center for American Progress reports that 43% of gay and 90% of transgender people have experienced discrimination and harassment on the job.
  • Many may be suffering from deep emotional traumas caused by past abuse from other people, including their own family members.
  • Religious intolerance for non-mainstream sexuality may even prevent them from being able to follow a particular faith or find a spiritual community to be part of.


Social and personal isolation

One of the biggest issues affecting LGBTQ+ people is a sense of isolation. This can come from feeling “different,” or it can arise from public ridicule and rejection. This can lead to a kind of internalized homophobia, characterized by a deep self-loathing, and by constant feelings of shame and of being damaged. Naturally, many take refuge from these feelings in substance abuse.

Feelings of loneliness

A common trigger for substance abuse in the LGBTQ+ community is loneliness. This can arise from frustration over the difficulties in finding or maintaining a love interest, but it can also come from a lack of intimacy and someone to confide in.

Peer pressure

The “club scene” that forms the nucleus of many of the social activities in the LGBTQ+ community provides a veritable banquet of substances to abuse. Binge drinking is common, and the easy availability of illicit drugs makes these clubs into a kind of drug abuse delicatessen. Not only is this environment a temptation for substance abuse in the first place, remaining part of it and associating with people who are still abusing all of these substances can make it very difficult to quit. It can also present an obstacle to anyone within the community who wants to seek help.

Discrimination in the recovery and mental health communities

Adding to all of these triggers, LGBTQ+ individuals who DO seek help often encounter social discrimination in the rehab community that denies them equal access to healthcare and opportunities for rehabilitation.

Other Problems Caused by Drugs and Alcohol Addiction in the LGBTQ+ Community

Addiction is not an isolated problem in and of itself. It can also be a cause or escalator of other psychological or health problems. The mental processes of people suffering from addiction are often clouded, which leads them to make bad choices. It is also probable that an addict will mostly interact with fellow addicts, which makes it even more difficult to overcome the addiction because they are constantly surrounded by enablers.

The decision-making processes of an addict are usually poor, especially while they’re under the influence. Trying to cope with life’s issues by relying on drug or alcohol use will likely cause even more life issues, and so the self-perpetuating vicious cycle goes on and on. People who are addicts are often highly susceptible to:

  • Depression

  • Eating disorders

  • Suicidal tendencies

  • Health risks such as liver cirrhosis or lung cancer

  • HIV contracted by sharing needles

  • Sexual dysfunction

Having a problem with an addiction usually leads to having even more problems. Depression is a big issue in the LGBTQ+ community, so much so that gay men are 3X more likely to have an eating disorder. Not only that, an addiction to certain drugs can even lead to more serious diseases like HIV or Hepatitis when sharing needles or other drug use paraphernalia.

So How Do We Help LGBTQ+ People Suffering from Addiction?

Recognizing issues associated with addiction is quite important, because getting help as a  gay or transgender person is a little different than it is for a straight person suffering from addiction. Doctors and counselors who understand the pressures of being LBGTQ+ can design treatment programs that are designed to appeal to – and more important, to work for – LBGTQ+ individuals in ways that “standard” treatment programs do not.

For one thing, these days LBGTQ+ individuals can finally find help in rehab centers that have been specifically designed just for them. There are treatment centers that cater to the unique needs of gay men, lesbian women, bisexuals, and even LBGTQ+ youth. These individualized treatment options can make a big difference in the ability of these individuals to recover from an addiction.

Some issues dealt with at specialized LBGTQ+ treatment centers in addition to standard rehab and recovery programs include:

  • Managing discrimination from others

  • Dealing with depression, anxiety, and guilt that stem from sexual orientation or gender identity

  • Handling peer pressure

  • Guidelines for accepting their identity and coming out

The Advantage of Specialized LGBTQ+ Rehab Centers

More and more, help centers are springing up that have a real understanding of the specific needs of LBGTQ+ people. Going to such rehabilitation centers can make the patient feel more at home, and assist in the recovery process. Just being around other people who have had the same struggles in life is itself a great therapy, which can tremendously improve the patient’s feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.

LBGTQ+ individuals need to be cared for as individuals, in a warm and welcoming environment where they do not feel the alienation that drove them into addiction in the first place. As an additional plus, these types of recovery facilities often also specialize in treating other co-occurring disorders, if they are present.

How to get the recovery help you need when you’re LGBTQ+

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