Rehabs struggle to address higher addiction rates, lower treatment success in gay community
It’s often said that drug addiction is an equal opportunity disease — but research suggests that’s not entirely true.
Studies have shown that LGBTQ individuals are both more likely to be addicts and more likely to struggle in treatment than their straight and cisgender counterparts.
Molly Gilbert, who works at the PRIDE Institute — a Minneapolis-based addiction treatment program founded in 1986 with a specific focus on treating the LGBTQ community — said that most data shows that somewhere between 28% and 35% of the LGBTQ community has a substance abuse problem.
“This estimate contrasts with an incidence of 10% to 12% for the general population,” she said.
Scott Benjamin, a gay man in recovery, said that did not surprise him.
“There’s kind of a party culture in the LGBT community,” he said.
Gilbert agreed and said that the gay bar scene is often considered a risk factor.
“But,” she said, “these bars have often been the only places where LGBT folks can socialize and feel free from the prevailing oppression that is experienced every day in a strongly heterosexist society.”
Another reason LGBTQ patients may struggle in treatment is simply that it’s difficult being gay.
“The society in which we live marginalizes the LGBT community,” Gilbert said. “Some LGBT individuals self-medicate with drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with or numb feelings associated with heterosexism.”
In addition to a higher incidence of substance abuse, LGBT people have a harder time in treatment, according to some data.
“We saw that our LGBT clients were having to seek more treatment episodes and more detoxes before getting to us,” Buster Ross, the LGBTQ integrated program director at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s Springbrook campus in Oregon, told the Daily News.
A Hazelden Betty Ford study published last year in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services showed that LGBTQ people had been through nearly twice as many inpatient treatment episodes and three times as many detoxes as their straight counterparts by the time they arrive at the facility.
Gilbert said the findings were no surprise.
“We believe LGBTQ clients struggle more, not only with treatment but recovery in general,” she said.
Benjamin said that the first time he tried treatment it didn’t stick and, worse, his counselor accidentally outed him to his father.
Though he’d come out to the rest of his family in his early 30s, Benjamin was reluctant to come out to his father. Then, in 2004 his father was diagnosed with brain cancer and given only a few months to live.
Benjamin was already struggling with a drinking problem and that was the final straw. He checked himself into a psych ward.
“I told the counselor I didn’t want my dad to know,” he said, “but then during a family visit she slipped up and said I was going to LGBT meeting.
“She realized she made a mistake and then she said, ‘Maybe this would be a good time to tell him.’”
So Benjamin came out to his dad.
“The counselor said , ‘Do you still love your son?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I still love my son,’” Benjamin recounted. “That was two months before he passed away.”
In the end, the unintentional outing worked out okay but Benjamin said he thinks that’s a mistake that wouldn’t have happened at a facility more in tune with LGBTQ treatment needs.
Exactly how those needs are met varies from one facility to the next.
Gilbert said that one school of thought is that, “’Addiction is Addiction’ and all addiction treatment should be the same.”
Although there was a weekly LGBT meeting, Benjamin said that was still basically the approach he dealt with the first time he tried to get clean.
Another approach is to create entire treatment centers geared just toward LGBTQ needs – like what PRIDE has been doing since 1986.
Finally, somewhere in the middle is the option to create LGBTQ-specific programming within a regular treatment center, which is what Hazelden Betty Ford has done.
“The model is based on everywhere that we can improve the training or knowledge to be intentionally inclusive we do it that way, but we also have break-out groups,” Ross said.
The hope is that specialized treatment options will reduce the number of times LGBTQ patients need to go through treatment.
“It shouldn’t take multiple visits to a mechanic to get your tires changed,” Ross said.
For Benjamin, it took two tries.
After leaving the psych ward, he later completed a program at Hazelden Betty Ford and has now been clean since Dec. 25, 2005.