LGBTQ Youth Face Increased Risk of Substance Use

LGBTQ-specific support for recovery is important, especially for young people.

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Working closely with at-risk groups is key to close the gap and ensure that all young people are supported in recovery.

We may be living in an age with more visibility for LGBTQ people, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to more acceptance. “Minority stress,” or the pain of social stigma experienced by marginalized groups, is especially hard on young people.

A new study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence makes it painfully clear that LGBTQ youth remain “at increased risk relative to heterosexual youth for polysubstance abuse.” The study’s author, Oregon State University psychology professor Dr. Sarah S. Dermody, told The Daily Beast that substance use in young people was a coping mechanism.

Dermody’s study is a statistical analysis of over 15,000 young people who responded to a 2015 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey. They were asked questions about how frequently they used substance use. They were also asked to identify their sexual orientation as “heterosexual,” “gay or lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “not sure.”

According to The Daily Beast, Dermody identified four different groups, or classes, of substance users: alcohol, marijuana and nicotine, polysubstance and e-cigarettes, and polysubstance and tobacco. Alcohol was the class in which most young people reported binge drinking; the majority of nicotine and marijuana users said they used “at least one nicotine-containing product. Everyone in the the polysubstance and e-cigarette class “reported alcohol and marijuana use and most participants reported binge drinking and e-cigarette usage.”

Young people who identified themselves as “questioning,” or unsure about their sexual orientation were more likely to be in the polysubstance and tobacco class than young people who were sure they were straight. This group of LGBTQ substance users face a higher risk of several negative health and social outcomes, such as addiction, and poorer cognitive, social, and academic functioning.

Bisexual youth presented the highest risk of substance use, because they face discrimination both within and outside the LGBTQ community. Bisexual young people were statistically more likely than heterosexuals to be in each of the four classes of substance use. That suggests that bisexual youth have to endure high levels of minority stress.

“One of the leading theories for the increased drug use in bisexual youth is that bisexual youth face even more stigma and discrimination based on their sexual identity,” Dermody told The Daily Beast. “There are sometimes misconceptions about bisexual individuals being ‘confused’ about their sexual orientation, because they are not aligning with a binary view of sexual orientation—either homosexual or heterosexual.”

LGBTQ-specific support for recovery is important, especially for young people. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that LGBTQ people have a “greater likelihood” of developing a substance use disorder, such as alcoholism. They also tend to have “more severe” substance use disorders when they start rehab programs. These problems develop in adolescence, sometimes in response to a hostile, homophobic environment.

Dermody said that’s why it’s important to help LGBTQ youth while they’re still in the early stages of substance use disorder. If they get help “when they are first experimenting with substances, they can be provided the necessary interventions to prevent the development of difficult-to-treat addiction.”

Feeling lonely, isolated, and hated causes many young LGBTQ people to use substances. Breaking the social stigma of homosexuality and queerness, along with the stigma of addiction is one step forward for the recovery community. Working closely with at-risk groups is key to close the gap and ensure that all young people are supported in recovery.

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