LGBTQ Youth: Substance Use and Alarming Statistics

According to a brief sponsored by The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Foundation and The Partnership For Drug-Free Kids by 12th grade, more than three-quarters of U.S. teens have tried alcohol, nearly half have used marijuana, and 21 percent have abused prescription medication. These figures make it clear that every adult who supports a teen should be concerned and educated about drugs and alcohol. However, the issue is especially concerning for young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) and their parents or caregivers. As they cope with harassment, stigma, rejection by their families, and depression, LGBTQ teens (also referred to as sexual minority youth) are more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Many federally funded surveys have only recently started to ask about sexual orientation and gender identification in their addiction and substance use disorder data collections (National Institute On Drug Abuse, NIDA). However, researchers, healthcare workers, and community organizations have long known that LGBTQ youth are more likely to abuse substances than their straight and cisgender (non-transgender) peers. 

And a new study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth published in the Journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence (JDAD) reports, “Gay and lesbian youth in grades 9 through 12 were significantly more likely than their straight counterparts to be co-users of marijuana and nicotine, while bisexual youth were at heightened risk of being in any of the four substance-using groups identified in the study.” These statistics make it painfully clear that LGBTQ youth remain at an increased risk relative to heterosexual youth for polysubstance abuse (JDAD).

LGBTQ Youth and Alarming Statistics

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) brief breaks down other serious statistics on LGBTQ youth and drug and alcohol substance use:

One key point in all of these statistics—being LGBTQ does not cause substance use or a substance abuse disorder (SUD). Rather, specific differences weaken LGBTQ youth support systems and increase the pressure for them to use drugs and alcohol. 

Risk Factors 

Below are common risk factors believed to promote substance use and SUDs among LGBTQ youth. 

Stress, Families, and Mental Health

Even though more and more LGBTQ teens are growing up in families and communities that embrace and support them, it’s still common for LGBTQ teens to be rejected by their families, harassed by their peers, and demeaned in the media and on social media. This stress (called minority stress) is daunting and contributes to SUD among LGBTQ youth. In many cases, this kind of stress can also lead to depression and thoughts of suicide. The Trevor Project noted, “The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS) highlights high rates of adverse mental health indicators among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students, including increased depressive symptoms, increased rates of seriously considering suicide, and increased rates of attempted suicide.” 

Working to understand these horrific statistics, the Trevor Project conducted a National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health (2019) to examine the impact of acceptance from multiple types of adults on reducing suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth. The research shows that youth with at least one accepting adult were significantly less likely to report a suicide attempt. Research like this is not only vital—it can save lives.

Bullying, Peer Influence, and Harassment

LGBTQ teens were twice as likely as non-LGBTQ teens to have been excluded (48 percent), verbally harassed (51 percent), or physically assaulted (17 percent). Several studies have found that LGBQ students who are victimized in school have higher rates of drug and alcohol use than their heterosexual peers (HRC).

Gender Stereotypes

The term “gender non-conforming” refers to someone who acts or appears in ways that defy gender expectations. Some evidence suggests that being gender non-conforming is a risk factor for adolescent substance use and abuse, particularly among LBQ girls. At least one study has found that LBQ girls who identify as butch, a term used by some masculine LBQ women, are most likely to use alcohol and marijuana. This may be because gender non-conforming girls experience more stigma and harassment than LBQ girls who are more traditionally feminine (HRC).

LGBTQ Youth, Addiction and Treatment

What we as parents, caregivers, healthcare professionals, and policymakers can do about these staggering statistics is increase more research, funding, support, and community resources to help our LGBTQ teens grow up healthy, happy, and substance-free. If you or a loved one are suffering from a drug or alcohol addiction or substance use disorder, it’s vitally important that you seek treatment. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, it’s equally important you find a treatment center that understands the needs specific to the LGBTQ community. The recovery experts at Daylight Recovery Services are sensitive to these needs and make it a priority to ensure our clients feel safe, comfortable, and supported throughout treatment. Contact us today at 1-833-2DAYLIGHT to take the first step towards recovery.