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Studies on substance abuse rates among LGBT individuals are a relatively new development. As society progresses towards inclusivity, more and more orientation and gender-specific questions appear in surveys and research interviews. It allows to assess the risks of abuse among LGBT people and create more effective prevention campaigns and treatment plans, but it also reveals disturbing statistics.

LGBT Mental Health

In 2019, public support for the LGBT community is stronger than ever. Today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals come out more readily and at younger ages. In comparison with how things were in the early 2000s, the level of love and acceptance that they receive has dramatically increased. And still, the rates of drug and alcohol abuse among LGBT people are twice as high as those of their heterosexual cisgender counterparts.

One of the major causes of substance abuse is mental health issues. Although improvements in the quality of life of LGBT youth and adults are undeniable, the situation is still far from being adequate. Bullying, violence, rejection, and shaming of persons who are anything but heterosexual are still very much alive. Together with self-loathing, social conflicts, and fear for one’s safety, limited access to LGBT addiction treatment centers (Addiction Resource provides an overview) contributes to the development of depression, anxiety, suicidal behavior, and eating disorders in addition to substance abuse.

Substance Abuse Among Heterosexual And LGB Populations

Statistically, gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals are at much higher risk of developing substance addiction than heterosexual people.

Statistically, gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals are at much higher risk of developing substance addiction than heterosexual people. In a study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and Columbia University representatives of the LGB population and heterosexual individuals were questioned about their experience with drug, alcohol and tobacco use. It was found that sexual minorities are generally more susceptible to substance abuse, with 23.6% of responders using tobacco products, 21.5% reporting alcohol abuse and 7.7% admitting to drug abuse. Among the surveyed heterosexual people, these numbers were 17% for tobacco, 12.8% for alcohol abuse and 3.8% for any drug use disorder.

The study went further to examine a correlation between different non-heterosexual identities and rates of various substance use disorders as well. It also included individuals who identified as “questioning” or “not sure”. Reportedly, severe alcohol abuse was present in 11.5% of questioning persons, 11.4% in those who were bisexual, 7.1% in exclusively gay or lesbian responders and only 2.9% among the heterosexual. At the same time, severe drug use disorders were found in 4.8% of questioning responders and in 3.5% of bisexual persons. The figures of drug abuse for gay or lesbian and heterosexual individuals remained approximately the same: 1.4% and 1.1% respectively. The rates of tobacco use disorders were the highest among the questioning and the lowest among the heterosexual responders.

Mental Disorders In The LGBT Community

These days, the average age of coming out is approximately 14. This is a period when the youth, LGBTs, and heterosexuals alike, reports stronger prejudicial attitudes, peer pressure, and victimization. Adolescents are more likely to encounter homophobic behaviors and let them influence their own opinions, self-image, and judgments about human rights and prejudice. As people age, they develop a more sophisticated evaluative approach that allows them to resist society’s beliefs that they deem wrong or unfair. Younger people, however, don’t have appropriate mechanisms in place yet and thus are more susceptible to social exclusion.

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Prior to coming out, LGBT youth first must come to terms with their sexuality or gender identity. The amount of stress it puts on a person is determined by the culture and community where they grow up. For instance, a gay boy, raised in a household where stereotypical masculinity was an essential value, and where heterosexuality was endorsed as an only unquestionable option, may struggle with accepting his attraction towards males more than his peer, raised in a more flexible environment.

The highest levels of distress and self-hatred reside within the transgender community. Transgender is an umbrella term that combines many gender identities and indicates that a person’s gender differs from the sex they were assigned at birth. Adolescence is a particularly trying time for transgender people because their bodies begin to develop in ways that feel wrong to them, and the stress is constant due to social interactions and the necessity to hear the name and pronouns they reject.

Overall, internal disturbance, homophobia, peer pressure, and fear contribute to extremely high rates of depression and anxiety in the LGBT community. Getting professional help isn’t always an option for those who don’t wish to disclose their sexuality to strangers or are cautious about being misgendered and misunderstood. Substance abuse becomes a form of self-medication. For some, it’s the last resort when depression becomes unbearable. For this reason, LGBT addiction treatment calls for specific methods and focus of therapy. LGBT rehab centers recognize this and usually offer dual diagnosis programs to tackle both the addiction and the underlying mental health issues.

Substance Addiction Treatment With Regard For Mental Health

LGBT rehab facilities may be more effective than other treatment centers mainly for two reasons. First of all, many institutions that LGBT persons encounter in their lives, for instance, their schools, hospitals, and universities, limit their rights and leave them with feelings of vulnerability and distrust to the whole system. At the same time, successful therapy is impossible without trust. Rehab centers that specifically focus on the LGBT community understand how difficult it can be to create a comfortable environment and watch out for any signs of disrespect or judgment towards their patients.

LGBT drug rehab programs also enable people to open up about the issues they kept to themselves out of fear or shame and get nothing but support and guidance in return. Through declaring to be LGBT-friendly or LGBT focused, treatment centers eliminate the unconscious barrier that prevents some patients from discussing their addiction and its causes. When people are explicitly permitted to express their true emotions, they begin feeling less and less ashamed of them. Combined with medical treatment when it’s required and peer support from the family, friends and other members of the community, LGBT rehab often leads to full recovery.

Thanush Poulsen

Thanush Poulsen is a health blogger who focuses on the problems of public health. Currently, the scope of his attention is directed to substance abuse by minority groups.