At the age of 17, Jason Arsenault felt like an outsider growing up in a small suburban town in New Jersey. Broken down by constant bullying, he desperately searched for a place where he belonged. He found solace and acceptance in the gay club scene, booming just across the bridge in New York City. There, he found alcohol, ecstasy, and crystal meth, which would eventually derail his life and leave him on the verge of death. His struggle is not unique. Approximately 30 percent of the LGBTQ community abuse drugs or alcohol, compared to 9 percent of the heterosexual population. Much like Arsenault, many LGBTQ+ individuals begin using drugs and alcohol to fit in.
“Having an effeminate demeanor at a young age, I was made fun of a lot, and when I discovered marijuana, I felt like everything changed. Suddenly, I was a part of the cool crowd at school and the feeling of belonging was amazing,” says Lloyd Fitzsimmons, who later struggled with cocaine and opioids, but is now in recovery and helping individuals in need get into treatment. “We often face social stigma, discrimination, and other challenges not encountered by people who identify as heterosexual, marking us high risk for substance use disorder,” he adds.
Mental health also plays a role in the increased risk LGBTQ+ individuals face. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, psychological and emotional disorders are more prevalent among the LGBTQ+ community. More than half experience anxiety and depression. And when it comes to LGBTQ+ youth, the numbers are even more alarming: they are four times more likely to kill themselves than their heterosexual counterparts.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community often face added challenges that make them more susceptible to mental health disorders, and in turn, substance abuse. These include:
- Discrimination based on sexual orientation
- Rejection from family or friends
- Physical and emotional abuse
- Internalized homophobia or self-hatred
- Hate crimes
Self-acceptance is a common struggle among LGBTQ+ individuals. “I used alcohol as a social lubricant in order to feel comfortable with myself and my sexuality,” Arsenault recalls. Once he began using crystal meth, he found that it helped him feel less self-conscious about having sex with men. Mike Rizzo, who runs a crystal meth recovery program in Los Angeles, believes that is why meth has such a strong hold on people. “In terms of lowering inhibitions and feelings of internalized homophobia, it’s an excellent drug for someone who might be struggling with that,” he says.
Although many LGBTQ+ individuals use substances in search of societal and self-acceptance, others use them as a method of avoidance. “Alcohol is a drug that may be particularly useful to avoid or distract yourself from focusing too much on yourself,” says Amelia Tally, whose 10-year study analyzed the high rates of alcohol abuse among women who identify as lesbian or bisexual. According to Tally, many women, particularly older women, turn to alcohol as they grapple with their attraction for their same gender.
Many LGBTQ+ individuals are not only more likely to struggle with substance abuse but also less likely to receive adequate addiction treatment. This is due to the additional barriers many face when seeking access to inpatient and outpatient treatment programs.
Barriers LGBTQ+ Individuals Face When Seeking Addiction Treatment
Shortage of LGBTQ-friendly facilities
LGBTQ+ individuals already struggle with self-acceptance and feeling like outsiders. Placing them in a treatment center that doesn’t take their added challenges into consideration can often make them feel even more isolated and vulnerable to relapse. Arsenault, who now works as a recovery coach at Mountainside, shares, “If you’re the only gay man in treatment, you don’t feel like you’re connected to the community.” Since he started working at Mountainside, Arsenault has helped implement LGBTQ-friendly programming to ensure that LGBTQ+ clients get the personalized support they need to succeed.
Lack of Insurance
Though worth it, addiction treatment is rarely cheap, and for individuals without insurance, accessing treatment is almost impossible. According to recent data, LGBTQ individuals are less likely to have health insurance. Reasons for low insurance rates among the LGBTQ community include limited access to insurance through domestic partners and negative experiences with health care providers. Due to changes in the sex discrimination prohibition language on the Health and Human Services website, protections against the LGBTQ+ community have been reduced. And because of expanded religious exemptions in healthcare laws, medical professionals can now deny services to LGBTQ+ patients if it goes against their morals or religious beliefs. This makes many LGBTQ+ individuals hesitant to obtain insurance or seek medical assistance.
Lack of Support
Support is key in addiction recovery, but receiving support can often be challenging for members of the LGBTQ+ community. Not only are they more likely to be estranged from their family than those who identify as heterosexual but they are also more likely to be homeless, making it even more challenging to get access to addiction treatment.
While the LGBTQ+ community faces added challenges when it comes to obtaining addiction treatment, individuals who are struggling with substance abuse should always reach out for help. In certain cities, there are LGBTQ+ 12 Step meetings available, as well as addiction treatment centers with special LGBTQ+ inclusive programming, and LGBTQ community centers that can offer additional support. Though the road to recovery won’t be easy, a meaningful, drug-free life is worth it.