Why LGBT Populations Face Substance Abuse – and How to Deal with It

Why LGBT Populations Face Substance Abuse – and How to Deal with It

- in Health
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Creative Commons
Creative Commons

On January 22, 1986, Carl Wittman took a lethal dose of drugs at his home in North Carolina, surrounded by his loved ones. The decision to commit suicide was entirely conscious and in no way impulsive; it resulted from being diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-1980s and Wittman’s subsequent rejection of hospital treatment. Wittman was an activist in a wide range of causes, openly gay and only 43 years old at the time of his death.

The last few decades of the 20th century in America were characterized by a dark plume of drug-related deaths, both among prominent figures like Truman Capote and those, whose names remained unknown, among the LGBT community and heterosexual population, among the rich and poor. The majority of those deaths, unlike Carl Wittman’s, were accidental, spontaneous and preventable.

Drug abuse has always been in a symbiotic relationship with other social and individual problems, and 1980s presented LGBT populations with an abundance of troubles that let substance abuse grow and spread. The beginning of the HIV epidemic, a religious revival that brought renewed conservatism and made life hard for various minorities once again, along with the opioid crisis made it virtually impossible for LGBT people to get treatment. A luxury like an LGBT drug recovery program (Addiction Resource provides a guide) that we have today was not only nonexistent but simply unthinkable.

Modern Issues Faced by the LGBT Community

Back in 1970, the fight for equality was only beginning. “San Francisco is a refugee camp for homosexuals,” Carl Wittman wrote in his famous and greatly influential manifesto. “We have fled here from every part of the nation, and like refugees elsewhere, we came not because it is so great here, but because it was so bad there. By the tens of thousands, we fled small towns where to be ourselves would endanger our jobs and any hope of a decent life; we have fled from blackmailing cops, from families who disowned or ‘tolerated’ us; we have been drummed out of the armed services, thrown out of schools, fired from jobs, beaten by punks and policemen.”

It is a popular belief among many that the oppression of individuals who identify as members of the LGBT community that Wittman described is a thing of the past. While the situation has drastically improved over the years, this, however, is not entirely true. Bullying, discrimination, and social judgment are still frequently directed at gay, lesbian, transgender and queer persons – teenagers and adults alike. It taints opening up about one’s sexual orientation or gender identity with anxiety and expectations of potentially detrimental consequences. “The fear of coming out is not paranoia,” Wittman noted, “the stakes are high: loss of family ties, loss of job, loss of straight friends – these are all reminders that the oppression is not just in our heads. It’s real.”

LGBTQ and Drug Abuse

Addiction in the LGBT community has been subject to speculation for a long time. In the past, it was widely accepted that the roots of substance abuse lie in frequent partying, attributed specifically to gay culture. While it is true that drug abuse was rampant in bars and clubs, it’s hardly the heart of the problem in the modern world. Parties contribute to availability of drugs, making them more tempting to try for non-users and preventing those who are already addicted from quitting, but the sheer existence of substances doesn’t cover the reasons for addiction.

Drug abuse originates not from being a member of the LGBT community, but a minority. Psychologists refer to this effect as “minority stress”. Minority stress occurs when a person experiences discrimination, repression or other hardships because of their identity, beliefs or physical characteristics that are stigmatized in the society. Although the world is finally moving away from tolerance and making significant steps towards acceptance, people who identify as LGBTQ are still at a greater risk of harassment, bullying, violence and eventual development of various mental health issues. For many people, it’s not yet a struggle for equality but a fight for survival.

A report by Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for the year 2015 proves the alarming statistic. According to the conducted survey, 39.1% of lesbian, gay and bisexual responders used any illicit drug during that year. In comparison with 17.1% among heterosexual adults, that figure is all the more disturbing. Along with extremely high suicide rates and an increased likelihood of having co-occurring psychiatric disorders, that number should be perceived as a loud and desperate call for help.

Thankfully, it doesn’t go entirely unheard. Numerous LGBT-friendly rehab centers across the country make it their goal to create a safe and comfortable environment for sexual minorities to recover from substance abuse. They don’t apply unique treatment methods, and neither do they administer any uncommon medications. The magic of LGBT drug rehab programs is in the attitude. It’s in support, recognition, and permission to be true to oneself.

Treatment and Prevention of Drug Abuse Among LGBT People

Within the community, issues frequently spring from mistreatment, social rejection or personal unsettling feelings. For instance, some gay teens get in a conflict with their parents after coming out and encounter hurtful rejection. At the same time, transgender kids and adults may experience severe self-loathing and body dissatisfaction that lead to increased rates of depression, self-harm and suicidal behavior relative to their cisgender counterparts, both gay and heterosexual.

Clinicians at LGBT addiction treatment centers are trained to account for mental distress and treat their patients with uncompromising respect. Therapies and counseling are specifically tailored to help the patients work through traumas and painful feelings, come to terms with their own sexuality or gender identity and learn how to cope with high-stress situations without abusing drugs. A friendly environment is essential to a successful recovery.

The existence of available and inclusive treatment is critical for overcoming addiction. Still, prevention is equally important. Prevention aims to tackle the underlying issues, the discrimination, harassment and inequality faced by LGBT people. Since prejudice against the LGBT community is a social phenomenon, everyone is involved and every opinion matters. It’s a long run to put an end to drug abuse among LGBTQ populations, and the first step should be in the direction of acceptance. Don’t question your child or alienate them when they trust you enough to open up about their sexuality or identity. Be friendly and supportive with your LGBT co-workers or classmates just like you would be with cisgender heterosexual individuals. It doesn’t look like much, but changing the world, after all, doesn’t take much.

Jefferey Buckley is a health blogger from Denmark who seeks for better solutions in health care, especially in the field of addiction-related approaches and treatment.

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