Why the LGBT Community needs unique addiction treatment

People in the LGBT Community who struggle with addiction need customized addiction treatment. Why? We explore. More on best practices in addiction treatment here.

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Effective addiction treatment is best when customized!

Addiction is a profoundly lonely and isolating disease.

In order to live a lifestyle entirely based around drinking or using drugs, individuals must cut off their social support networks- family, friends, and romantic relationships. This is because addictive use consumes an individual’s:

  • thinking
  • behavior
  • motivations

Often, a drug-of-choice becomes more important than spending time with family or showing up for a friend in need. Using is more vital than going to work or taking care of daily responsibilities. That’s why addiction treatment must address the social aspect of a client’s life in order to be successful.

Specialized addiction treatment for the LGBT community is key to supporting the whole, long-term recovery. More here on why special treatment is required…with a section at the end for your questions. In fact, we try to respond to anyone facing a drug or alcohol problem both personally and promptly!

Addiction is influenced by life experience

Addicts and alcoholics need help in learning how to reintegrate into a society that substances have disconnected them from. Effective treatment must be informed by each patient’s individual social role. A good treatment program should assess:

  1. What a person’s needs are.
  2. What a person’s strengths are … and
  3. How their environment impacts their mental and emotional health and social function.

For groups of people who have been discriminated against by society and its institutions, treatment must look different because every aspect of addiction is influenced by an individual’s life experience, and life experience is certainly influenced by institutional discrimination. The treatment industry is beginning to understand this, but more demographically based treatment methods are sorely needed for some traditionally marginalized groups.

This need is especially pronounced in the case of the LGBT community because addiction rates within this group are higher than in the general population. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), addiction and alcoholism rates in the LGBT population are at 20-30%, compared to 9% in the general population. That’s an increase of 2-3 times the standard rate of addiction.

There are many factors that contribute to this increased rate of substance abuse and dependence, and they must be addressed comprehensively and on a societal level. What this means for the treatment industry, however, is that the LGBT population needs (and deserves) treatment that address their specific needs, in order to prevent unacceptable loss of life and tragedy within the community. The same factors that cause such high levels of addiction in this group are exactly the same factors that necessitate a different approach to treatment.

Why is Specialized Addiction Treatment Important?

For the LGBT community, like every other segment of the population, addiction and alcoholism are fueled by environmental as well as hereditary factors. Comprehensive and effective addiction treatment has always been contingent on the recognition of these factors. The specific issues faced by LGBT addicts and alcoholics must be addressed in a setting that is geared towards these unique needs.

Why do we specifically need specialized addiction treatment for the LGBT population? There are many reasons, but the following sections outline the major factors that create this need.

1. Sexuality issues feed into an addiction.

For members of the LGBT community who suffer from addiction, specialized addiction treatment is especially vital because the social perception of individuals, their roles and their connections to the world around them, are all impacted by sexuality. For example, in strict treatment programs, family therapy is limited to immediate, nuclear family members of patients. However, LGBT individuals may often form kinship connections beyond their family of origin due to estrangement or rejection based on their sexuality. So, effective family therapy for a member of the LGBT community who has no biological family relationships due to rejection, and who has chosen to forge kinship connections outside of their family of origin, is going to look different than it will for a person who lives within their nuclear family.

During treatment, self-acceptance is key to resolving issues that feed into addiction – and this requires caring guidance from psychotherapists, staff, and counselors. Specialized treatment centers that are competent in addressing these issues give LGBT clients the best chance at recovering because they cater to the unique needs of this population.

2. A true support network helps encourage self-acceptance.

It is well-understood that being disconnected from social support exacerbates addiction and alcoholism. Being able to develop a support network is vital for addiction recovery. For members of the LGBT community, social isolation is often a factor of life before they ever pick up their first drink or drug and it often precedes addictive behaviors. In some places, the community is general rejects LGBT human beings, and this isolation becomes worse.

In order to recover, people who identify as LGBT need to have access to support, friends, and groups that foster self-acceptance. Treatment centers that specialize in helping this group allow these individuals to connect with one another in an environment that is supportive of non-heterosexual or transgender identities, guaranteeing freedom from discrimination and rejection and the opportunity to be surrounded by peers.

3. Context and an understanding of institutional discrimination matter.

Very few professionals have ever been under the impression that a “one-size-fits-all” style of treatment works in healing individuals with substance use disorder. Therapists need to have a concept of their clients’ background and social context in order to effectively treat them.

Many treatment centers offer vocational programs that help patients fill out resumés and search for employment. That’s great, but what about the transgender individual who lives in a state where employers can legally discriminate against them for not being cisgender? What if they need access to resources and help with changing legal documents to accurately reflect their gender identity before looking for work, or getting their license renewed? These seemingly mundane and ordinary tasks can be immensely complex for people who face institutional discrimination or even just ignorance of their needs.

4. Holistic healthcare is often difficult to access for the LGBT community.

Addiction treatment must be conducted by professionals who are culturally competent, knowledgeable about specific LGBT health concerns, and capable of treating LGBT patients with high-quality care and compassion in order for it to be effective. Addiction treatment is essentially a form of healthcare, and physical and mental health care are fundamental aspects of any addiction treatment method. This is important because studies and anecdotal reports indicate that members of the LGBT community often do not have access to adequate healthcare.

Many healthcare providers are just simply not knowledgeable about LGBT issues or cultural norms. The use of incorrect pronouns for transgender individuals, for example, can cause these patients to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable going to the doctor or seeking help. Health care coverage rates are lower in this population, and trans patients may not have access to hormone replacement therapies for transitioning. For homosexual women, hormonal birth control may help treat painful conditions like endometriosis, but many OB-GYN doctors may be unwilling to prescribe it due to perceived lack of necessity, or just may not even think to offer it to female patients who are unlikely to get pregnant. Mental health concerns, such as the increased risk of suicide and depression in LGBT people are also widely under-addressed.

5. Treating trauma in the LGBT community requires special training.

Trauma is a major contributor to the development of substance addiction. LGBT youth are more likely than their peers to experience:

  • early childhood trauma
  • sexual abuse
  • bullying at school

…and LGBT adults experience sexual assault and intimate partner violence at higher rates than the general population.

There are many reasons for this, including family rejection, discrimination, and the tendency of people who have experienced trauma and isolation to seek validation, sometimes from unsafe people. Regardless of the cause, trauma fuels addiction.

Addressing trauma is a vital part of addiction treatment. In a community that is more susceptible to experiencing trauma, any form of treatment must involve therapists and clinicians that are highly trained to address it. Facilities with a focus on LGBT patients are more likely to employ staff that is well-versed in trauma treatment and capable of helping patients to overcome it.

6. Treatment must create a safe place WITHOUT drugs.

A professional cannot effectively treat a disease that is based partially on social isolation and function without an understanding of the patient’s cultural and sociological context. Because of years of discrimination and violence, the LGBT community developed a distinct culture and carved out safe cultural spaces to congregate, connect, and live. Traditionally, these places have been nightclubs, dance halls, and underground spaces, such as artist collectives.

This is because society has generally rejected the community, and in order to have social interaction, enjoy music, dance, or have leisure time, LGBT people had to create their own venues for doing so. This is a great resource for so many members of the LGBT community– places where they can safely express themselves and have fun- but many of these spaces heavily emphasize drinking and drug use. For example, in order to avoid possible violence, a gay man or woman may not feel comfortable asking a stranger for their phone number to take them on a date. In a gay bar, however, LGBT people are generally safe and can explore romantic relationships.

For many LGBT people, in order to safely meet potential romantic partners, gay bars and clubs are the best options. This comes with drinking and drug use a lot of the time. High rates of substance abuse in the community are partially caused by the fact that oftentimes, the only safe places where LGBT people can socially interact revolve around substances. Addiction treatment specifically geared towards LGBT addicts and alcoholics gives these patients a chance to get their social needs met- like having a group of friends to spend time with- in a context that is safe and free from drugs and alcohol.

Treatment should honor the uniqueness in each of us

Addiction treatment is a highly personal process for every human being who struggles with drug or alcohol use. Every single time an individual seeks treatment, they carry with them their entire life experience. In order to effectively treat LGBT individuals for addiction and offer them a chance to live happy and fulfilled lives, we need specialized treatment that honors that unique life experience.

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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