It’s now recognized that middle-age and older adults who are gay, lesbian or bisexual have a higher risk of substance use disorder. Compared to heterosexuals, substance use is much higher for the LGBTQ community. Experts say that discrimination, sexual stigma or social isolation can be the main causes for the higher risks.
In June, in honor of pride month, many experts contemplated solutions for LGBTQ people who are at risk for substance use. Most suggestions were directed toward communities and their ability to change the stigma and discrimination against LGBTQ adults. By simply reminding people why LGBTQ adults are at higher risk for substance use, experts hope they will see an overall improvement.
Substance Use and Misuse in Older LGBTQ Adults
Researchers at New York University and the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at the NYU School of Global Public Health determined the main causes for the increase in substance use in older LGBTQ adults. The study also found that older LGBTQ adults were twice as likely to use cannabis and prescription opioids nonmedically compared to heterosexual adults.
“Our research confirms that a higher prevalence of substance use among lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults can continue into later life. Similar to LGBTQ adolescents and young adults, such prevalence may be related to stressors like discrimination and stigma based on sexual orientation in addition to stressors related to aging, including social isolation and age-related stigma,” says Dr. Benjamin Han, the report’s lead author, in an NYU press release. The study has been published by the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Not only are older LGBTQ adults at risk of drug misuse, but they also are at risk for excessive alcohol consumption. In 2011, The Aging and Health Report: Disparities and Resilience among Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Older Adults reported that 10 percent of older LGBTQ community members were excessive drinkers. Twelve percent also used drugs that were not prescribed.
In an article in the National Resource Center, Laurens G. Van Sluytman, an assistant professor at the Morgan State University School of Social Work, looked at the numbers. “Over four million seniors will need substance abuse treatment services by 2020. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community members will undoubtedly represent a portion of this number.” The numbers are staggering and evident that discrimination can have long-term effects on LGBTQ members that misuse substances.
The pressure and stigma that older LGBTQ community members face are significant. One of the most common reasons for someone to use drugs or alcohol is stress. Anxieties about fitting in or depressive feelings for being cast out socially can also cause stress. In turn, coping mechanisms may cause people to look to drugs and alcohol as a way to self-medicate. These are the reasons why members of the community are at high risk of using or misusing substances.
Severe Substance Use Disorder
Individuals who are LGBTQ often enter treatment with more severe SUD. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, members of the LGBTQ community also tend to have other conditions that make SUD more difficult to treat.
“Sexual minorities with SUDs are more likely to have additional (comorbid or co-occurring) psychiatric disorders. For example, gay and bisexual men and lesbian and bisexual women report greater odds of frequent mental distress and depression than their heterosexual counterparts. Transgender children and adolescents have higher levels of depression, suicidality, self-harm, and eating disorders than their non-transgender counterparts. Thus, it is particularly important that LGBT people in SUD treatment be screened for other psychiatric problems (as well as vice versa), and all identifiable conditions should be treated concurrently.”
Preventing the Risk of LGBTQ Substance Use
As researchers begin to learn more about the LGBTQ community, some hope that their reports will help other communities understand the stigma against LGBTQ members. The best thing that anyone can do to help is to be educated and inform others of the situation.
“These findings should inform prevention and harm reduction efforts in this community and should not be used to stigmatize such individuals. We hope that this new research, published during Pride Month, will remind people about the stressors many people still face in 2020 based on their sexual orientation,” says researcher Joseph Palamar, who co-authored the NYU study, in the university’s press release. “Even though times are changing, and things have been getting better for the LGBTQ community, older individuals in this population may still be affected by past experiences of intolerance.”
By learning about how the older LGBTQ community has been affected by substance misuse, experts have found specific ways to help recovery efforts. LGBTQ elders should be approached with specific ways to recover from substance misuse.
“As such, we must advocate for intervention research that is grounded in deeply exploring the multiple issues impacting elder LGBT who use or misuse illicit substances and prescribed medication. That is research and treatment methods that focus on the social and sexual contexts of substance misuse and aging. Next, we must provide training and resources to support and improve existing treatment modalities that recognize existing socio-economic differences and incorporates elders’ LGBT voices.” writes Van Sluytman.
As communities around the nation continue to accept LGBTQ members, they should be aware of the risk that older LGBTQ adults have with substances. In the older LGBTQ adult community, researchers found that they are twice as likely to use nonmedical drugs compared to their heterosexual counterparts. A common reason why these adults had been more likely to use drugs is thought to be rooted in discrimination. The amount of stigma that older LGBTQ adults have faced is significant. By refraining from harmful language, LGBTQ adults are less likely to start using substances nonmedically.
By Brock Erekson