Why Drug Abuse Is a Big Problem Among LGBT Teenagers

Posted on September 17th, 2015

Substance abuse and addiction is a widespread problem among teenagers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (an umbrella term preferred by many, particularly young people). Internal conflict and confusion, omnipresent societal norms and expectations, and often overt discrimination all contribute to the risk of substance abuse that these teens face.

A meta-analysis from the University of Pittsburg that was published in 2008 found that lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents were 190 percent more likely to use drugs or alcohol than heterosexual youth. The numbers for bisexual and lesbian teenagers were even more significant—bisexual teens were 340 percent more likely to abuse substances, while lesbian teens were 400 percent more likely to abuse substances.

The Search for Identity

Adolescence is a time of uncertainty, discovery and growth for almost everyone. Risk-taking and experimentation is also often part of the teenage years. For LGBT youth, the struggle to establish an identity both internally and with friends, family and others can be even more intense and challenging.

These young people are more likely to experiment with drugs and alcohol as they attempt to establish their identities and to feel comfortable in their own skin. Experimenting with drugs, engaging in risky sexual activity and other potentially dangerous activities can help LGBT youth to feel that they have some degree of control over the many struggles they are facing.

Violence and Discrimination

External pressures can also make it more likely that LGBT teens will seek comfort, escape or acceptance through substance use. These youth are much more likely to face bullying at school and to suffer physical or verbal abuse at home. Many also experience hostility, discrimination or even violence in the larger community.

More subtle external pressure can also cause distress for LBGTQ teens as they struggle to be comfortable with their identities. Many LGBT people wrestle with the fact that modern culture, including everything from popular music to greeting cards, continues to be hetero-normative and recognizes the existence of the queer community in largely token ways. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people are slowly gaining more visibility, but transgendered youth and adults remain almost invisible in popular culture.

All of these challenges put LGBT teens at greater risk for drug abuse. Some may turn to drugs as a way to escape from the sadness, anxiety, loneliness and even fear that they suffer regularly. LGBT teens also frequently feel isolated from their peers and may be more likely to succumb to peer pressure to use drugs in an effort to connect and fit in with other teens.

LGBT Youth and Mental Illness

The stress that many LGBT teenagers experience puts them at greater risk for mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. Mental illness, in turn, makes it more likely that teens will abuse drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse becomes a way to self-medicate and gain temporary relief from the mental illness with which they are struggling.

The connection between mental illness and substance abuse is not exclusive to LGBT teens, but it can complicate the path to recovery. The stress of being a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered teen typically contributes directly to the presence of mental illness because adolescents may be unable to ask for help if their sexual orientation or gender identity is not something that they feel comfortable or safe sharing with their parents or other adults.

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