June is Pride Month in the United States, and is a time to celebrate the history of the LGBTQIA+ community. During Pride, activists also share goals and visions for an even better future. Sojourner House is proud to help uplift the voices of the LGBTQIA+ community, and to advocate for the health of LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Unfortunately, the LGBTQIA+ community is not immune to substance misuse and substance use disorder (SUD). In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ) have higher rates of substance misuse and substance use disorders (SUDs) than people who identify as heterosexual.
2020 Data On Substance Use and Misuse
Data from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health suggest that substance use patterns reported by LGBTQIA+ community members differ from those reported by heterosexual adults. In 2020:
- approximately 41.3% of LGBTQIA+ adults 18 and older reported past-year marijuana use, compared to 18.7% of the overall adult population
- approximately 6.7% of LGBTQIA+ adults in 2020 misused opioids (prescription opioids or heroin use) in the past year, compared to 3.6% of the overall adult population
- approximately 21.8% of LGBTQIA+ adults had an alcohol use disorder in the past year, compared to 11.0% in the overall population
Reviews on the use of tobacco products by LGBTQIA+ individuals have shown elevated rates of smoking and e-cigarette use compared to their heterosexual counterparts as well.
Risk Factors Faced By the LGBTQIA+ Community
It’s easy to look at the stats listed above and make negative assumptions about why LGBTQIA+ people struggle with SUDs at such high rates. In reality, however, substance misuse is often a symptom of other issues and struggles among this community –
- Discrimination & Stigma: LGBTQIA+ people are more likely to experience discrimination, harassment, ridicule, violence, and stigma due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The stress of experiencing these things – or even stress from worrying about experiencing them – increases the chances of an individual misusing substances. It becomes a coping method that helps to numb pain, frustration, and anger. Depending on their social situation, a person might have limited social support as well, further driving the desire to dull their emotions and stress.
- Poor Health Care/Access To Care: Medical care and support can make a difference and help prevent cases of substance abuse. For example, as discussed in a past blog, living with a mental health disorder can put an individual at a higher risk of developing a SUD; proper mental health care, in turn, can reduce this risk. Unfortunately, despite legal protections, LGBTQIA+ community members often face discrimination accessing medical care. Not being able to access care – including mental health care that would offer necessary social support – increases a person’s risk of developing a SUD.
- Socialization: LGBTQIA+ community members will often visit bars, clubs, and restaurants that are known to be safe spaces for them. These are venues where smoking and alcohol use are common, if not encouraged, which can contribute to the development of unhealthy habits that in turn lead to substance misuse.
Acting On This Knowledge
While Pride is a time of celebration, it’s also a time when we can plan on how we will advocate for ongoing progress towards justice, equality, and care for the LGBTQIA+ community. The reality is that as long as people face discrimination, as well as experience poor physical and mental health care, they will continue to experience higher rates of SUDs than heterosexual individuals.
Long-term help for the community will need to include:
- funding for LGBTQIA+ focused care
- improved training for medical professionals
- new and ongoing legal protections
- ongoing data collection and research, leading to new specialized treatments
Fortunately, there are more programs available now that offer healthcare focused on the unique needs of the LGBTQIA+ community. Looking to the future, it’s up to us to continue to advocate in favor of these programs, their funding, and their expansion.