Stress Plaguing LGBT Students Blamed for Higher Levels of Substance Abuse

Posted on February 1st, 2016

Alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug use is relatively common among college students as a whole when compared to the general population. Research suggests that LGBT students are particularly vulnerable to substance abuse during college or university, as they are throughout most of their lives.

A study from 2010 published in the journal Addictive Behavior found that gay, lesbian and bisexual (GLB) students were more likely to engage in alcohol or other drug use, to have higher stress levels and to report the threat or experience of physical or sexual violence. Furthermore, higher stress and the threat or experience of violence were independently associated with higher rates of substance use.

There are a number of factors that may influence higher rates of substance use among LGBT students. A 2012 study from the University of Michigan found that experiencing hostility or incivility on campus, as well as simply witnessing hostility or incivility, was associated with higher rates of problematic drinking. This suggests that the overall environment of a campus may be as influential as each student’s individual experience.

However, campus environments and resources may not always have the expected effect. For example, a 2003 study by the Harvard School of Public Health looked at how the presence of LGBT resources on college campuses affected smoking and drinking among GLB students. They found that female students were less likely to smoke when campus resources were present but that male students were more likely to drink.

Protecting LGBT Students From Violence Is Not Enough

These studies show how important the issue of substance use and abuse among LGBT students has become, but they also show that the solution is far from simple. Certainly, protecting LGBT students from physical harm or threats has to be a leading priority, as the short-term and long-term physical and emotional consequences for students who survive such experiences can be huge. But the body of research suggests that campuses also need to adjust their overall environments, cultures and resources in order to become fully inclusive and supportive places for their LGBT students.

Changing Campus Culture From the Top Down

Some campuses are beginning this environmental evolution as early as the application process. In January, Duke University became the first Common Application school to ask students about their sexual or gender identity. In a question that encourages students to share their diverse experiences and perspectives, applicants are encouraged to discuss their sexual orientation, gender identity, family or cultural background. Duke’s LGBTQ student organization led efforts to include this question, in the hopes that it will make a public statement about the university’s commitment to inclusivity.

This is a relatively small step, but it may be the sort of action that colleges and universities need to take to foster positive environments. While LGBT student groups can provide strong peer support for these students, there is a difference between allowing students to create their own resources and taking official action that shows a commitment to fostering and celebrating diversity.

In addition to taking preventive action to eliminate the factors that contribute to LGBT substance abuse, colleges may need to make LGBT-specific resources available for treatment and recovery. While many colleges want to decrease overall substance use and abuse among their students, they should not lose sight of the unique needs of this particularly vulnerable population.

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