LGBTQ+ people sometimes grapple with homophobia, discrimination and stigma that may have negative repercussions on their health. These negative feelings give rise to physical and mental health issues that sometimes push them toward substance use. In fact, a 2014 Australian study reported that 58 percent of the LGBTQ+ youths surveyed listed homophobia as one of the reasons for their drug and alcohol use.
Because of their sexual identity and orientation, LGBTQ+ people often face violent behaviors such as bullying, teasing, harassment and physical assault. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ+, which shows that family rejection is indeed a problem for LGBTQ+ youth.
The CDC report also mentions a 2009 study stating that LGBTQ+ young adults who experienced family rejection were three times more likely to use illegal drugs than those from supportive families.
“One can think of three reasons for the increased rates of addiction among LGBT people – all resulting in increased stress, which is a very well-known contributor to the initiation and perpetuation of substance use,” Dr. Petros Levounis, Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told NBC News.
Levounis added that increased stress can stem from discrimination, perceived discrimination and internalized homophobia.
LGBTQ+ college students have higher rates of substance use than heterosexual students, according to a 2010 study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. The research explained that the high rate of use might be due to stress from an unwelcome campus environment.
Despite modern society being increasingly accepting of LGBTQ+ culture and its norms, sometimes LGBTQ+ people struggle with internalized homophobia. This type of homophobia occurs when the individual accepts sexual stigma and discrimination as part of their self-concept and identity.
Internalized homophobia may result in self-loathing among LGBTQ+ people and may be a trigger for substance use. An individual might look at drugs and alcohol use as a means of acceptance of their true persona. However, when people depend on drugs to feel comfortable in their skin, it increases their addiction potential. This is due to a double-reward effect, where the substance user enjoys a chemical high from the substance and an emotional high from being his or her true self.
The ongoing marginalization contributes to the LGBTQ+ community’s struggle with anxiety, stress and depression. To cope with these issues, LGBTQ+ people often resort to self-medicating with drugs, notably marijuana, according to an NBC News article.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of HIV/AIDS & Social Services surveyed HIV-positive gay and bisexual male young adults about their marijuana use. The participants cited stress relief, social relaxation and forgetting about their diagnosis as reasons for their use of marijuana.
When asked to elaborate on why he used marijuana, a 24-year-old bisexual male participant said, “I’ve been smoking weed the whole time I’ve been having HIV and so that’s kind of like what I do to make the problem go down or just make me forget about what I was thinking.”
A 22-year-old gay male participant explained that marijuana helped him deal with his HIV problems after he’d dropped out of HIV treatment for a year. Other survey participants reported starting to smoke marijuana to cope with their HIV diagnosis.
A young gay male participant related that he smoked a large amount of weed on the first day of his diagnosis because he needed a break from his problems. Another gay male dealt with his diagnosis the same way and explained that he stayed inside and used marijuana during the first few months of his diagnosis to avoid the embarrassment of being reminded of his health condition.