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Understanding Addiction and Mental Illness in the LGBTQ Community


Those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community are too often faced with hardships their heterosexual peers do not understand. Because the LGBTQ population is seen as different, members are not always accepted, which may lead to negative situations. Unfortunately, these challenges have the potential to lead to mental health issues, particularly anxiety, depression and substance abuse.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), LGBTQ individuals are almost three-times as likely as heterosexual individuals to have mental health conditions.

LGBTQ Mental Health

When you deal with rejection or face a negative stigma because you are viewed as different, you may feel alone, afraid and highly stressed. If these feelings are constant, it can have a negative effect on your mental health. For some, it can lead to serious psychiatric problems, such as bipolar disorder, major depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

Facing prejudice, harassment or discrimination on a regular basis over your gender identity or sexual preference is something an LGBTQ individual may experience regularly. In some situations, negative feelings toward a member of the LGBTQ community might even lead to bullying, homophobic victimization, social isolation and even violence. In the worst cases, those with these conditions may experience thoughts of suicide, or have even attempted or carried out suicide.

Aside from increasing the risk for poor mental health for the LGBTQ individual, the impact of the actions associated with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia could lead some to turn to substances to find an escape from those negative situations.

LGBTQ Substance Abuse

Based on data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rate of substance abuse disorders among individuals in the LGBTQ community may be as high as 20 to 30 percent, while non-LGBTQ people are at 9 percent. Substances abused include alcohol, tobacco and drugs. As the Center for American Progress shared in 2012, statistics for each type are unequal when comparing LGBTQ individuals with those in the heterosexual population:


  • 25 percent of LGBTQ people deal with alcohol abuse, which is a much higher rate than the 5 to 10 percent of non-LGBTQ men and women.
  • Gay men are 3.5 times more likely to smoke marijuana, 12.2 times more likely to ingest amphetamines, and 9.5 time more likely to use heroin than heterosexual men.
  • Homosexual and transgender individuals use tobacco as much as 200-percent more than their non-LGBTQ peers.


This disparity in rates of substance abuse, as well as mental illness, does not just apply to the adult LGBTQ population. Young LGBTQ individuals are six times more likely to suffer from depression than the general population, according to NAMI. Adolescents are often afraid to come out due to negative cultural stigmas and the possibility of teasing and judgment from peers at school. Because they are trying to hide their true identity, some might turn to substances to cope with that burden. A survey from 2009 of 7,000-plus seventh- and eighth-grade students from a county in the Midwest, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), found that the homosexual youth reported higher levels of substance abuse than the heterosexual students.

Although the numbers may not be a true representation of the entire LGBTQ community, as some might not be willing to reveal their sexual orientation or gender identity to the public, there seems to be a problem in our society. Those outside of the LGBTQ community need to work together to eliminate bias and offer support for friends and loved ones facing these issues.

LGBTQ Mental Health Resources

Since homosexual and transgender people are at risk for prejudice and discrimination even in their youth, schools need to start making changes to encourage acceptance and provide a safe environment for every child. Research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network says students who have support available at school do better in classes. Ways to offer that support include:

  • Establishing set, negative consequences for bullying and discrimination
  • Hiring supportive teachers and administrators
  • Creating support groups and/or clubs providing resources and a community for LGBTQ students
  • Incorporating LGBTQ issues into the curriculum

While establishing a safe and supportive environment at schools is a key step, LGBTQ individuals need to feel the same thing at home. Whether school-age or retirement-age, loved ones and friends need to be open, accepting and non-judgmental. The CDC recommends parents listen to their child, stay involved in his or her life, and be proactive in finding LGBTQ-supportive resources. Additionally, be on the lookout for any signs that the homosexual or transgender person close to you is suffering. The following symptoms are often signs of a mental health disorder:

  • Inability to sleep or sleeping more than normal
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Threats of suicide or evidence of self-harm
  • Fatigue or loss of energy consistently
  • Visible irritability and restlessness

If an LGBTQ individual is exhibiting any of the above problems for two weeks or more, it might be beneficial to visit a mental health provider to discuss treatment. If you are the one having these symptoms and are having trouble managing your emotions, consider reaching out for help – either to a loved one you trust or a professional.

LGBTQ Mental Illness and Addiction Treatment

Anyone experiencing addiction or mental illness, whether LGBTQ or not, should seek help from a professional as soon as possible. When the problem is related to sexual orientation or identity, it’s important to find a practitioner or health care facility that has experience providing treatment for LGBTQ patients. Providers should be knowledgeable not only on the conditions and standard care, but also the cultural impact on mental health cases of this nature.

Chicago Lakeshore Hospital is a top provider of LGBTQ behavioral health care in the Chicago area. Our specialized Valeo Pride Inpatient Program for LGTBQ individuals offers comprehensive care, free of judgment and bias, for those dealing with anxiety, substance abuse, depression or suicidal thoughts. We employ board-certified, culturally competent medical professionals who are trained to create an individual plan for each patient. If mental illness and substance abuse are present together, we will treat both in conjunction with each other, as well as offer resources for family members looking to provide support.

Taking steps to prevent the prejudice and providing proper care for those affected by mental illness or substance abuse is critical to the wellbeing of many LGBTQ individuals. Although society has made great strides in the acceptance and support all individuals in the LGBTQ community, some people still discriminate and judge others for being different than they are. Things won’t likely change overnight, but understanding the issue and the need for proper health care is an important start.