The LGBTQ+ community has made real strides at ending discrimination and achieving greater equity for its members. In the area of mental health and addiction, however, many LGBTQ+ people still face unique difficulties and challenges when trying to access effective treatment for their needs. For example, transgender people are routinely denied health coverage, and those within the LGBTQ+ community have higher rates of being uninsured.
Even with health insurance coverage, the LGBTQ+ community often faces obstacles—whether direct discrimination or more passive forms of neglect, such as lack of information about its health needs and care that hasn’t adapted to accommodate LGBTQ+-specific treatment needs. The result, not surprisingly, is compromised quality and effectiveness of treatment and care.
LGBTQ+ and Seeking Help
As with other populations, substance abuse in the LGBT community is a real issue that disrupts relationships, causes financial stress, and prevents the addicted individual from living a healthy, happy life. A sense of cultural denial may exist within the community that prevents those with drug and alcohol or other mental health problems from getting the help they deserve. Substance abuse is widespread and socially acceptable in the gay bar scene, and seeking help may be stigmatized.
The fact remains that, according to a 2015 “National Survey on Drug Use and Health” by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), those who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community suffer from substantially higher rates of substance abuse for every category of drug. Several factors are known to contribute to substance abuse among the LGBTQ+ community, including:
- A tremendously high rate of workplace discrimination
- Ongoing harassment within the workplace and the individual’s community
- A lack of healthcare options that leads to self-medication with illicit substances
- Stress associated with widespread homophobia
Before confronting an LGBTQ+ loved one about addiction, it is best to have an understanding of the entire situation. It is imperative to consult with a treatment center that is willing to accept the individual’s “family of choice,” and not the biological or legal definition of “family.” Treatment centers that are inclusive will understand that the client needs their preferred support system available to them. Limiting the person who is seeking treatment to only biological or legal family members is a failure to affirm the uniqueness of the situation and may cause additional stress which will limit the success of the treatment.
Addiction Services and Mental Health Needs for LGBTQ+
Members of the LGBTQ+ community have unique challenges when facing addiction. It is the responsibility of the treatment center to understand the dynamic that exists between substance abuse, sexual orientation, and identification, and to respond accordingly. Attempting to assimilate LGBTQ+ individuals into a generic addiction treatment program is usually not effective at addressing their unique needs. Clients must feel safe and comfortable to speak up in group therapy settings, and that degree of comfort can be difficult to guarantee in a treatment center with a general population. Treatment centers must understand that if they are unable to provide a specific level of care to their LGBTQ+ clients, they may even risk causing more harm and increasing the chance of relapse.
The risks associated with addiction are magnified when coupled with the mental health challenges faced by those in the LGBTQ+ community, such as:
All of these psychiatric symptoms and disorders occur at significantly higher rates among gay and bisexual men and lesbian and bisexual women, according to a report by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Financial stress due to poor or no insurance, coupled with discrimination and judgment, can further aggravate both the stigma and the seriousness of their health problem.
Another concerning factor for family and friends: Substance abuse is often widely condoned within the LGBTQ+ community. A recent push within the mental health community for more inclusive treatment options may help ease this challenge. When those receiving substance abuse treatment can do so within a peer community consisting of other LGBTQ+ individuals, the acceptance level increases and the chance for recovery improves. Chicago’s Pride Parade features a group called “Out and Sober.” The goal of the group is to allow for the expression of sexuality and gender while communicating the importance of healthy, substance-free living. Alcohol abuse no longer has to be the norm within the community.
Improved Access for All
Not uncommonly, LGBTQ+ individuals have been made to feel like outsiders within heterosexual-dominant treatment settings. They often face harmful stereotypes, discrimination, and misinformation related to their alternative identities. In recent years, new and improved guidelines for treatment centers have encouraged greater inclusiveness, including changes such as gender-neutral language and consequences for discrimination. Exclusive LGBTQ+ treatment centers and programs have also opened across the country, with the goal of meeting the specific and unique needs of those within the community with addiction.
Demands for changes in health insurance have led to improvements in access to health insurance within the LGBTQ+ community. As gay marriage continues to gain more social acceptance, and as laws are updated to reflect the rights of those within the LGBTQ+ community, access to health insurance will continue to improve, making substance abuse treatment more affordable.
Statistics on LGBTQ+ Mental Health/Addiction
The numbers concerning addiction within the LGBTQ+ community are staggering and deeply concerning. A study in Missouri revealed that 35–40 percent of the state’s LGBT community smokes, compared to only 21 percent of the general population. SAMHSA has reported that 20–30 percent of gay and transgender people struggle with substance abuse— as compared to nine percent of the straight population.
Common Concerns for LGBTQ+ Individuals Seeking Help
These sorts of factors mean that quality addiction treatment programs for LGBTQ+ people must address the concerns that are common to this population. For example, transgender people are often excluded from treatment programs or grouped with other sexual minority groups. As a result, they do not receive the specialized care they need for their specific treatment needs. Studies have reported that many transgender people have had negative experiences with healthcare that have prevented them from seeking help with other health concerns.
What Is the First Step to Seek Help?
Seeking substance abuse treatment and care can be confusing at first. Similar to many chronic diseases, addiction has a high relapse rate— between 40 and 60 percent. It is difficult for LGBTQ+ individuals to know where to go where they will be accepted and receive the best treatment with the highest chance of success. When seeking help for LGBTQ+ patients who are struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, it is best to consider the principles of effective treatment according to NIDA:
- No single treatment is effective for everyone.
- Effective treatment considers the unique needs of the LGBTQ+ patient.
- Treatment must be readily accessible.
- Remaining in treatment for an appropriate amount of time is critical.
- Treatment plans must be modified regularly.
A Better Life Is Within Reach
It is critically important for LGBTQ+ people with addictions and/or other mental illnesses to know they have treatment options and that life can get better. Rely on specialized advice from FHE Health to help navigate treatment options and find the most effective care plan. FHE Health offers an inclusive treatment setting where those within the LGBTQ+ community can receive a full continuum of state-of-the-art care tailored to their individual needs—without distraction, discrimination, or judgment.