Addiction in the LGBTQ Community

Why addressing specific communities is important

Addiction is complex not only because of substances and how they affect bodies, but also because of the people dealing with it. When treating someone, it is important to take into consideration that person as a whole. This includes, but is not limited to, economic background, family history, age, gender, ethnicity, mental illness, and culture. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a government resource, states, “No single treatment is right for everyone. The best treatment addresses a person’s various needs, not just his or her drug abuse.”* People within the LGBTQ community face unique challenges and struggles. If their background is ignored, then treatment will not adequately help them. According to NIDA, those in the LGBTQ community frequently deal with, “…social stigma, discrimination, and other challenges not encountered by people who identify as heterosexual. They also face a greater risk of harassment and violence.”*

Furthermore, NIDA cites surveys that have found, “…sexual minorities have higher rates of substance misuse and substance abuse disorders (SUDs) than people who identify as heterosexual.”* The point of stating all of this, is not to make it seem like some kind of competition over who has it worse. The point is different groups of people deal with a variety of factors. If we treat each client the same, we will fail to help them. People have unique backgrounds and they deserve to have their unique needs met. Addiction is not simply a matter of picking up a substance and becoming addicted. There are many steps that lead to addiction, and it’s important to treat each of those steps. Getting off of a substance is one thing. It’s another to maintain long-term sobriety and be able to recover from relapses if and when they occur.

Substance Abuse in the LGBTQ Community

It is an unfortunate and common truth that many, if not most, people in the LGBTQ community face shame and discrimination throughout their lives. They are also at a high risk of violence, or threat of violence, because of their sexuality. Trauma is a frequent theme in addiction; many LGBTQ people have trauma from treatment because of their sexuality. Until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental illness.* It was only in 2003, that sexual activity between consenting adults has been legal nationwide, following a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. There is no federal law outlawing discrimination, leaving many people vulnerable. When people are targeted, isolated, and without full legal protection, it’s understandable they deal with trauma and other unique challenges.

For many people, of all backgrounds, substance abuse is a common way to cope with one’s problems. Substances also provide a way for many people to feel at ease socially, and to feel like they fit in. For people in the LGBTQ community that have been made to feel uncomfortable about who they are, substance use can be a way to cope and to feel more comfortable with their sexuality. For many people, including in the United States, sexual orientation discrimination is a very real part of their lives. When society, and even governments, are telling you that who you are is wrong that frequently results in severe damage. In a guide published by SAMHSA, the authors write that the discrimination often causes those in the LGBT community to use mind-altering substances and alcohol to cope with the stress.*

Why Inclusive Environments Matter

Treatment for everyone needs to be comprehensive. This means it should take into consideration their life up to the present. In doing this, providers also need to be sensitive to different aspects of a client’s background. Education is incredibly important; ignorance on the part of staff can lead to client withdrawal and create barriers that result in ineffective treatment. Not all clients will feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality or fully discussing it. With that in mind, counselors and staff should be respectful of what clients are comfortable with discussing. An inclusive environment allows clients to feel comfortable. It also allows them to receive thorough treatment to achieve and maintain sobriety. 

At Reflections, we have therapists who specialize in working with the LGBTQ community. We also have local AA meetings specifically for the community. Every day our staff works to provide a safe and inclusive environment. We want clients to know they’re welcome and that we care about who they are in their entirety. It’s important for any clients in the LGBTQ community to know that any discrimination, violence, threats, or other negative actions they have faced are not their fault. The SAMHSA guide states, “Counselors and clients should recognize that these effects result from prejudice and discrimination and are not a consequence of one’s sexuality.”* It is a lot of prejudice to dismantle, but something we are willing to work on with clients. If you or a loved one are in need of an LGBT friendly rehab or resources, contact us today!

*Resources:
Seeking Drug Abuse Treatment: Know What To Ask -NIH
Substance Abuse and SUDs in LGBT Populations – NIH
A Provider’s Introduction to Substance Abuse Treatment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Individuals – SAMHSA