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Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

Why Does the LGBT Community Experience More Drug Abuse?

How parents can help combat It.

We all know about the opioid abuse crisis among the U.S. population. But do you know that SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services) studies indicate that substance abuse is 20 to 30 percent higher among LGBT youth than the general population?

  • LGBT youth are more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual peers.
  • Transgender youth have the highest risk for developing substance abuse.
  • LGBTQ youth have 1.3 times the odds of heavy alcohol use, 1.6 times the odds of marijuana use, 2.9 the odds of injection drug use, and 3.3 times the odds of cocaine use.
  • Lesbians who identify as "butch" are more likely to use alcohol and marijuana.

Minority Stress At The Root

Being LGBTQ does not cause substance abuse; "minority stress" does. As defined by psychologists, minority stress occurs when a person experiences hardship because of a socially stigmatized identity like LGBT. Raised in a culture that is not affirming, being "gender queer" does not promote self-esteem. Bullied in school, fired from jobs due to discrimination, and attacked by religious groups, it's no wonder the LGBT population turns to substances at a disproportionate rate.

According to The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State, parents and caregivers are the biggest influencers in any child's stability. Nevertheless, LGBT youth who experience even a moderate level of family rejection were 1.5 times more likely to use illegal substances than those who experienced little or no rejection. Youth who experienced high levels of family rejection were 3.5 times more likely to use substances, particularly if they are thrown out of their homes or run away from them. The LGBT homeless have the highest use of illicit drug use, including alcohol.

What Parents Can Do to Offset

The Human Rights Campaign reports that nearly 40 percent of LGBTQ youth have an adult in their lives they can turn to. To be the parent your child wants you to be, follow these suggestions from the HRC Campaign:

  • Discuss your expectations about drug abuse. Research indicates that consistent disapproval of underage substance use is the most effective parental message for reducing your teen's drinking and drug use.
  • Monitor your child's behavior. Where are they? Whom do they associate with?
  • Know the signs of drug abuse and try to steer your child to places that are drug-free environments.
  • Positive Reinforcement. Show appreciation for what your kids do right.
  • Make sure your child is treated with respect at school because harassment by peers can lead kids in the direction of substance abuse.

Create An LGBTQ-Affirming Environment At Home

While many parents may need time to arrive at total acceptance, according to psychiatrist Jonathan L. Tobkes, "There are still things you can and should do to provide your child with the comfort and stability that are crucial in leading to a positive outcome. In other words, you can say the right things even if you are not fully at peace with the situation. Ask your child the same questions you would ask your other children. Specifically, don't avoid the topic of dating and relationships."

Family acceptance safeguards gay youth from substance abuse as well as depression and suicide. As a family increases its acceptance of its child's LGBT identity, the problems with drug and alcohol decrease.

About the Author
Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. and Wesley C. Davidson

Wesley C. Davidson is a journalist who researches straight parents of LGBT children. Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D. is a psychiatrist in New York and supervises residents at Weill Cornell Medical Center.

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