Addiction risk factors in the LGBT community

We cannot overlook two (2) main risk factors faced by Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people: trauma and isolation. Learn more, here.

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Why such a high risk of addiction?

Isolation, abuse, homelessness, family estrangement – these are all consequences of addiction. For some addicts, this is their reality before they ever pick up their first drink or drug. The risk factors for addiction range from early childhood trauma to family history of substance abuse. Any combination of circumstance, stemming from both nature and nurture, can impact an individual’s likelihood of becoming addicted to a substance.

For the LGBT community, however, there are additional factors, unique to that population that can increase these risks. Statistics are hard to come by regarding such a personal and controversial topic, but according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), between 20%and 30% of the LGBT community suffers from substance abuse issues and addiction. That’s about 2-3 times the rate of addiction in the general population.

Why this huge disparity? Along with the risk factors that can impact anyone, members of the LGBT community experience unique circumstances that can cause them to be more likely to develop an addiction. More about the LGBT-specific addiction risk factors here, with a section at the end for your questions and comments.

LGBT unique risk factors for addiction

There are many reasons behind the development of an addiction, and they are often as diverse as the number of addicts themselves. Most experts would agree, however, that certain environmental factors contribute to the loneliness, isolation, and depression that many say are at the root of substance use disorders. Two main factors? Trauma and isolation.

1. Trauma as an LGBT addiction risk factor

Early childhood trauma is a known risk factor for addiction.

While anyone is susceptible to traumatic experiences, LGBT youth are at a higher risk for being victims of sexual abuse during childhood than their heterosexual counterparts. Because LGBT youth often have trouble discussing sexuality, puberty, and relationships within their circle of family and friends, many reach out to communities on social media for advice and companionship. In some cases, this opens to door to interaction with strangers, some of who, sadly, prey upon vulnerable children.

For homeless youth, there is an even greater risk of exploitation and abuse. Homeless minors often turn to prostitution in order to survive on the streets. Recent statistics show that almost 40% of homeless youth identify as part of the LGBT community. Many of these children are forced, through coercion or necessity, into sex work, which perpetuates the cycle of trauma. These experiences can lay the groundwork for the mental health struggles that so often precipitate addiction.

LGBT adults are also at a high risk for traumatic experiences. Intimate partner violence and sexual assault occur at a high frequency among this population. Little is understood about why; but what we do know is that experiencing abuse as the hands of someone you love and trust can generate lifelong feelings of pain, shame, and depression, all of which can lead to addiction.

2. Isolation experiences in the LGBT community

Lack of a support network, through family and friends, can make someone feel isolated and lonely. These feelings can push someone towards a chemical “solution,” and ultimately, addiction.

The isolation experienced by LGBT individuals stems from discrimination at home, school, and in the workplace, and poses a unique risk factor for addiction. Studies conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth experience increased rates of violence and bullying at school. For LGBT kids who don’t come from homes that accept their sexual orientation or gender identity, school is the only safe place for expression. When these children experience violence at school, it can feel like there is nowhere safe to be their true selves. This isolation and loneliness make the world of drugs and alcohol appealing.

For adult members of the LGBT community who face rejection at home and struggle to find a community of friends, the nightlife scene offers opportunities to meet other LGBT friends and romantic partners. While clubs and bars are a great resource for many people, for the potential addict or alcoholic, a social scene that relies heavily on the use of alcohol can lead to a dangerous habit. When bars and clubs are your only option for fellowship with like-minded people, alcohol and drugs can become intertwined with feelings of fun and acceptance, leading to an unhealthy dependence.

Lack of rehabilitation resources for LGBT individuals

Exacerbating the risk factors discussed above is the cultural and medical reality faced by so many in the LGBT community. Addiction can be prevented or effectively treated through many resources. Access to addiction resources for LGBT, however, is difficult for marginalized groups.

  • Lack of support – The high volumes of homeless LGBT youth indicate that many members of this community do not have the family support necessary for access to treatment or therapy.
  • Lack of effective mental health and addiction treatment – LGBT adults also lack access to effective treatment. Adults who identify as gay or lesbian are twice as likely to be uninsured as heterosexuals and the number is higher for adults who identify as bisexual or transgender. For someone without insurance, accessing treatment can be almost impossible. Even before one develops an addiction, lack of insurance or medical care can, in fact, contribute to an addiction later in life. For example, for someone with untreated depression or bipolar disorder, both of which occur in high numbers in the LGBT population, self-medication through drugs and alcohol often seems like the only solution. Without access to appropriate psychiatric care, these individuals are far more likely to develop substance dependence.
  • Cultural barriers – There are cultural barriers to treatment as well. Rejection by doctors and other medical professionals, either overtly through denial of reproductive care or hormone therapy, or subtly, through misgendering patients or heteronormative standards of care, can create mistrust for the LGBT patient.
  • Mistrust in medical professionals – Over a lifetime, lack of understanding and compassion from medical professionals can develop into an aversion to medical treatment and can prevent LGBT addicts and alcoholics from seeking preventative treatment.

LGBT treatment access issues and solutions

The anger, depression, pain, and isolation of facing rejection from family, friends, work, medical professionals, and society, in general, can culminate in attempts to numb through the use of substances. The temporary comfort found in substances can, in turn, translate into a full-blown addiction.

As a member of the LGBT community, an individual faces a myriad of obstacles that can spark and fuel a substance addiction. Recognizing and identifying these unique risk factors is vital for the addiction treatment for LGBT and for society as a whole in order to effectively support the LGBT community, and to reduce the tragically high rates of addiction within it.

LGBT addiction risk factors questions

Do you have anything you’d like to ask or add to the discussion about how to best serve the LGBT community in addiction recovery? All your questions are welcomed in the designated section at the bottom. We try to respond personally and promptly to all legitimate inquiries. In case we don’t know the answer to a question, we will gladly refer you to professionals who can help.

About the author
All About Recovery, located in Royal Palm Beach, Florida. All About Recovery offers age- and gender-specific outpatient and IOP addiction treatment as well as sober living facilities in South Florida.
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