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Combating substance abuse within the LGBTQ community 

LGBTQ individuals across the nation experience rates of substance abuse and issues related to mental health at higher rates than those who identify as cisgender and heterosexual, according to 2015 research by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The survey defines substance abuse as using illicit drugs, smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol and misusing pain relievers. But the data doesn’t provide the whole story. Many people remain closeted because identifying as LGBTQ can result in discrimination and interpersonal violence. In part attributed to the Trump administration’s stance against LGBTQ causes, violence against LGBTQ folks has recently increased. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported 36 hate crime-related homicides of LGBTQ individuals as of August 2017, which is the highest number ever recorded by the NCAVP.

LGBTQ folks may misuse substances at higher rates because of trauma, homelessness, familial disapproval and disownment, poor health care coverage, high rates of depression and suicidal ideation, lack of job opportunities, and higher rates of sex work and sexual assault, all of which might be worsened by our political climate.

The Trump administration has encouraged (or at least not discouraged) the rise of white supremacy and nationalism, further devalued health care and education, and perpetuated rape culture and the practice of victim blaming, making everyday struggles more and more difficult to deal with, especially for minorities. Some may use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, because fewer resources and opportunities are available to them to lead safe, healthy and prosperous lives.

Finding treatment for substance abuse-related issues also can be difficult to navigate as an LGBTQ individual, as confiding personal information regarding sexuality can be extremely intimidating. The fear of encountering counselors who may be judgmental and disrespectful about sexual orientation and gender identity can deter people from seeking treatment.

Locally, Springs Equality provides a resource page with a list of LGBTQ and allied counselors who specialize in a variety of areas, including addiction and drug and alcohol abuse. One of these counselors is Heather Phillips, who runs a local private practice serving individuals who struggle with mental illness and addiction. 
In regard to finding counselors who are LGBTQ allies, she suggests “ask[ing] about accommodations, the environment, curriculum, treatment topics, and after understanding this, ask yourself or a trusted person if this seems like a safe and healthy place to seek services. If the person doesn’t feel as though the person at the agency can candidly speak about how they will specifically accommodate or ensure safety of a trans person (or LGBTIQ) then I would try looking for another option.”

Phillips has been working with LGBTQ teens since 2005, and she notes that she’s seen an over-representation of LGBTQ youth who suffer from substance abuse. Medicaid, a government program that many in the LGBTQ community rely on, doesn’t cover inpatient substance abuse treatment for individuals younger than 18, which leads to a gap in services for LGBTQ youth.

Phillips also says that she has seen a shift from teens struggling with sexual orientation to teens struggling more with gender identity. As our culture (if not our political climate) has become more progressive in recent years in regard to accepting non-heterosexual sexual orientations, it has a long way to go in accepting gender identities that fall outside of the socially constructed bimodal conception of gender.

Sexual orientation, gender identity, mental illness, race and nationality, and socioeconomic status come in layers. Different combinations of these identities can lead to limited resources and opportunities, adding to existing problems. We must keep pushing for the right to quality health care that includes treating substance abuse as a societal issue rather than an individual one; we must focus on rehabilitation techniques instead of criminalizing those who suffer from addiction, and we must advocate for necessary resources such as access to affordable health care and counselors who can help LGBTQ folks deal with trauma and depression.

In short, to combat substance abuse, we must address the culture that makes people feel like they don’t have other options.

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