Opioid Use Disorder Treatment and the LGBTQ Community

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Opioid abuse affects people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or social status. However, some groups are more at risk of problems than others. For example, compared to their straight and gender-conforming peers, the LGBTQ population experiences significantly elevated rates substance misuse and substance use disorder (SUD).

Drug overdoses have more than quintupled in the U.S. since 1999. Opioids are involved in almost 75 percent of all drug overdose deaths. The destructive effects of these drugs are no secret. The sharp increase in overdose deaths in 2016 led the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency in October 2017.

Five years later, the numbers have not improved. Opioid overdoses increased 30 percent between 2019 and 2020. Overdose deaths surpassed 100,000 in a one-year period for the first time in April 2021.

The need for opioid use disorder treatment is more important now than ever before.

Accessing treatment can be a challenge for anyone. It can be even more complicated for individuals who fall outside of the heterosexual and cisgender populations. Although LGBTQ individuals face a greater risk of developing substance use disorder, they often have a hard time finding LGBTQ-specific treatment. Increasing the availability of LGBTQ treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) is an important step in addressing this growing problem.

Substance Use, Misuse, and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) in the LGBTQ Community

Addiction does not discriminate. People from all walks of life can develop SUD and experience the damaging cycles it causes.

People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer face discrimination and stigma not encountered by heterosexual or cisgender individuals. They experience higher rates of misunderstanding, harassment, and violence. These stressors place this population at an increased risk of developing problems with drugs and alcohol.

Growing numbers of surveys now consider the impact of sexual orientation and gender identification on substance abuse and substance use disorders. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, LGBTQ adults report higher patterns of substance use. Some notable statistics include:

  • 37.6% of LGBTQ adults reported past-year marijuana use
    • Compared to 16.2% of the overall population
  • 12.4% of LGBTQ adults reported an alcohol use disorder
    • Compared to 10.1% of the overall population)
  • 9% of LGBTQ adults reported past-year opioid abuse
    • Compared to 3.8% of the overall population)

These increased rates mean providers need to focus on programs that cater to the specific needs of LGBTQ individuals. People in the community have higher rates of mental health disorders and report higher rates and suicidal ideation. Adding opioids into the equation exacerbates the problem. Specialized LGBTQ treatment for opioid use disorder can be the difference between untreated OUD and finding a solution to the cycle of substance misuse.

What is LGBTQ-Specific Treatment?

If you don’t identify as LGBTQ, you may wonder why someone would want LGBTQ-specific treatment.

LGBTQ treatment for opioid use disorder does not necessarily mean LGBTQ only treatment. Separating LGBTQ individuals from their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts is not the point: the point is understanding and inclusivity. Treatment facilities can take steps and make active efforts to develop a supportive environment for people in the community.

For example, transgender people seeking inpatient or residential treatment often face difficulties. Some facilities aren’t sure whether to house a person with the gender they identify with and present as or with the gender they were born as. This instills the belief that LGBTQ people don’t belong and makes it harder for them to find the help they desperately need.

On the other hand, LGBTQ-informed facilities prepare for these circumstances. They know how to handle situations as they arise and have protocols in place to ensure LGBTQ people in treatment feel seen, heard, and supported.

Is It Hard to Find LGBTQ Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder?

Many facilities promote their programs as LGBTQ friendly.

But how often do they follow through once a member of the LGBTQIA+ community arrives for treatment?

In one recent study, researchers examined a treatment directory listing the 20 states with the highest opioid overdose rates in the nation. They contacted 570 facilities that advertised LGBTQ-specific services to determine whether they truly offered them. Of the 446 facilities that responded, only 125 – 28 percent – confirmed they offered the specialized LGBTQ programs and groups they advertised.

That’s a problem.

The study likely scratches the surface. This unfortunate phenomenon perpetuates the stigma and disparity LGBTQ individuals face when seeking and engaging in treatment.

Is LGBTQ-Specific Treatment Necessary?

While LGBTQ-specific treatment isn’t explicitly required to achieve successful recovery, it does increase the likelihood people outside traditional gender and sexuality norms will feel welcome, seen, and understood. When someone can go to treatment without fearing they’ll face the same stigma that sent them to substances in the first place, they’re more likely to follow through with their treatment plan – and achieve long-term, sustainable recovery.

Providing comprehensive care that considers the unique needs of the LGBTQ community can  provide positive results.

Finding an LGBTQ-specific treatment facility can be challenging, but it’s possible. Many programs around the country recognize and accommodate the specific needs of individuals in the LGBTQ community. Reducing rates of opioid misuse starts with increasing the availability of LGBTQ treatment for opioid use disorder, something that every facility can take steps toward providing.