Substance abuse has become a growing problem for our nation’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender) community. People in this group are twice as likely to use and become addicted to drugs as heterosexual people, as well as binge drink and smoke cigarettes.
This group of people faces a unique set of challenges outside of the normal everyday problems that other people face. Unfortunately, they are often the subject of harassment, judgement, and social discrimination. This can cause added stress and mental issues, leading many individuals to use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate or escape.
If you are concerned about your substance use or that of a loved one, there are signs that you can watch for to determine if it is time to seek help.
There are many programs and resources available to this community to help with the unique struggles that they face. The first step is always admitting there is a problem and then seeking help for it. Today, there are many options for substance abuse help for LGBT people around the country.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that people who identify as LGBT are 2-3 times more likely to suffer from drug or alcohol addiction than people who are heterosexual. Approximately 20-30% of the members of this group suffer from this issue, compared to only 9% of the general population.
Substance use among LGBT people
The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community has consistently grown in the United States over recent decades. Current estimates show that approximately 4.5% of the American population (11 million people) identifies with this group. This figure has consistently risen in the United States as it has become more and more socially accepted.
As the number of people who identify as LGBT rises, it makes sense that the number of people within this community who struggle from addiction would also rise. But the thing that causes particular concern about the rate of substance abuse within this group is the significantly higher rate when compared to the rest of society.
Research on the rates of addiction within the LGBT community is still somewhat new, but the results so far are concerning. Approximately 20-30% of the overall LGBT population has a drug or alcohol problem. That means not just that they use drugs or alcohol, but that their use has become a major issue in their life and needs treatment.
According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2015, approximately 39.1% of the LGBT population used illicit drugs during the prior year. This is more than double the number of heterosexual people in the same time frame, where 17.1% had used drugs.
Why is substance use so prevalent for LGBT people?
The members of this community face special hardships and challenges that many others do not. Some have to deal with not being accepted by their friends and family members. There is constant social criticism and discrimination along with a number of other issues that they must deal with on a daily basis, including:
- Facing social stigmatization and prejudice
- Hate crimes, threats, and public humiliation
- Emotional abuse or ridicule
- Rejection or shame from family members or friends
- Loss of employment or not being considered for promotions
- Feelings of guilt, shame, or self-hatred
- Exclusion from social groups and activities.
- Physical abuse by family members, partners, or others
- Violence based on sexual orientation or gender identification
This stress alone can cause any person to turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their pain and frustration. The feeling that they have to hide their true selves from the outer world and the judgements it may pass can often lead to feeling isolated and depressed. This contributes to the higher rate of dual diagnosis, or coexisting conditions, in this population as well.
How does drug rehab treatment differ for LGBT people?
Substance abuse treatment for people in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community is largely the same as rehab for other people, but there are some important differences in care. For instance, a center that specializes in such treatment may offer an environment that is fully or largely made up of other LGBT people, which may feel more supportive or less isolating than programs that are primarily filled with heterosexual people.
There are several rehab centers in the United States that specialize in LGBT substance abuse treatment and nothing else, which are excellent opportunities for people who may struggle more with their identity or feel that being surrounded by others who truly understand their background will help their recovery. However, it isn’t always possible or necessary to attend one of these programs. The location, cost, or insurance coverage for these centers may be an issue. Or perhaps you or your loved one simply do not feel that this would be the best option for you. If this is the case, finding a facility that has some experience and specialization with this type of treatment is a good idea.
A treatment program that focuses on the specific needs of the members of this community will have more specialized classes and information that is based on the unique needs and challenges that they face. Additional program offerings, gender neutral settings, and an open, accepting, non-judgmental environment where the individual feels safe are all options to look for.
Some of the features of treatment will differ, but many will remain the same. Most drug rehab treatment facilities are going to offer some basic services. You can expect to have the same levels of care available to you. There are several options including:
Inpatient/Residential Treatment: During an inpatient or residential treatment program, you will reside on site and spend the majority of your time at the facility. Not only will you be housed there and receive all of your meals and any necessary medications, but you will also receive case management services, personal counseling, group therapy, and many other beneficial classes and programs. This is often the best level of care for people entering a rehab for the first time.
Intensive Outpatient/Partial Hospitalization: This is a slight step down in the level of care that you would receive with inpatient treatment. In intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization programs, you will still spend the majority of each day at the facility to receive treatment and case management services, but in the evening, you will go home or to another location to sleep. Usually there are programs that offer off-site sober living homes for their clients enrolled in this level of treatment.
Outpatient Treatment: With regular outpatient treatment, you will live on your own and likely be responsible for all of your meals and medication management. You will need to be on site several times per week (3-5 days, for 3-5 hours each day) to attend classes, receive case management services, participate in therapy sessions, and complete your program. This level of care is usually best for someone who has already completed a residential portion of their treatment plan and are ready to begin emerging back into society.
How to choose a treatment facility, provider, or support group
Regardless of which level of care you participate in, if you are a part of the LGBT community and are suffering from an addiction, it is critical that you attend a program that offers programs that specifically address your unique needs and concerns.
The inclusion of LGBT identification is only recently becoming a part of data collected in most national surveys and studies, so there is not very much historical data at this point in time. However, one recent survey showed that only 7.4% of drug rehabs offer services that are specialized for members of the LGBT community
It is equally important to find a treatment facility that offers options for dual diagnosis patients as well. This is because of the fact that the LGBT community has one of the highest rates of co-occurring disorders. With dual diagnosis patients, treating only one part of the problem will result in less than favorable results overall. Instead of treating just mental illness or substance abuse, dual diagnosis treatment addresses each issue together during a comprehensive treatment program.
Signs to watch for in your loved one
If you are concerned about a loved one who may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, there are certain signs to look for. Some signs will be in their physical appearance, while others will be changes in patterns or behaviors. Some of these include:
- Sudden weight loss
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Sleep changes (either sleeping much more or not sleeping at all)
- Changes in appetite
- Signs of sadness or depression
- Sudden aggressive behavior
- Legal or money problems that suddenly arise
- Lying or stealing from family and friends
The good news is that there are many options available for anyone who is suffering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some programs are completely centered and focused around the special needs of the LGBT community.
National Talk, Text, and Chat Hotlines
An organization that offers online chats, telephone support, and many other resources for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning people.
An online resource that has a youth-only hotline meant for youth up to age 25. Operators can provide counseling, resources, and more.
Call this 24/7 hotline for help with suicidal crises or emotional distress.
The Trevor Project is a national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people ages 13-24. Call the 24/7 hotline any time of the day or night for immediate help at chat, text, and receive social support.
Available from 10am-4am EST, this hotline is operated by trans people and exists to provide support to other trans people in need.
A weekly space just for trans youth who are under age 14 that is safe and moderated.
Held weekly, this moderated online chat group is for trans people who are ages 12-19.
Join this online meeting that invites everyone struggling with alcohol abuse to join them.
Gay men can receive support from others in this online Alcoholics Anonymous group.
This is an online support group just for lesbian women who meet each week via email.
Drop in to this open discussion online-format AA group to talk to others who understand your struggles.
With over 400 chapters with support groups and other local resources across the USA, PFLAG is an organization that supports LGBTQ people.
Each week, discuss a predetermined topic with the other members of this online group, or bring up your own thoughts or experiences.
This online-only AA group is just for transgender people who want to recover with people who truly know what you are going through.
Resources for LGBT Youth and Friends/Supporters
If you’ve ever wondered if you’re gay, lesbian, or bisexual, you’re not alone. Many teens ask themselves this question. For parents and caregivers, finding out your son or daughter is gay, lesbian, or bisexual can be difficult to navigate at first. Learn more about how to give and receive support.
As a student, you have the power to make change in many ways in your school and community.
A GSA club is a student-run club in a high school or middle school that brings together LGBTQI+ and straight students to support each other.
The It Gets Better Project reminds teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone, and life will get better.
The Q Card is a simple and easy-to-use communication tool designed to empower LGBTQ youth to become actively engaged in their health, and to support the people who provide their care.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender youth and those perceived as LGBT are at an increased risk of being bullied. There are important and unique considerations for strategies to prevent and address bullying of LGBT youth.
Resources for Parents, Guardians, and Family Members
LGBTQ youth need parents who respect, support, and listen to them.
Increased access to technology has benefits, but it also increases the risk of abuse. Learn more.
The Family Acceptance Project is a research, intervention, education, and policy initiative that works to prevent health and mental health risks for LGBT children and youth.
Finding out your son or daughter is gay, lesbian, or bisexual can be tricky to navigate at first. “A message to parents” can help you learn more about how to engage with your child on this topic.
This resource guide was developed to help practitioners who work in a wide range of settings to understand the critical role of family acceptance and rejection in contributing to the health and well-being of adolescents who identify as LGBT.
Information for parents on how youth experience sexual attraction and orientation, as well as how you as a parent or guardian may feel about and deal with youth on this topic.
Information about PFLAG’s confidential peer support and education in communities.
Parents’ Influence on the Health of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Teens: What Parents and Families Should Know
Information on how parents can promote positive health outcomes for their LGB teen.
Parents play a key role in preventing and responding to bullying. If you know or suspect that your child is involved in bullying, here are several resources that may help.
Supportive Families, Healthy Children: Helping Families with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Children
A family model to increase family support, decrease risk and promote the well-being of LGBT children and youth.
Accurate information for those who want to better understand sexual orientation.
DrugAbuse.com aims to provide educational content and recovery resources to those struggling with alcohol abuse and drug addiction.
Our mission is to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation. SAMHSA's mission is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America's communities.