Finding LGBTQ Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder

Three gay young adults smiling and looking at camera

Fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. have more than quintupled since 1999.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that in 1999, a total of 16,849 people died of drug overdose. In 2021, 106,699 people died of drug overdose: that’s a 533 percent increase. The same data shows that in 1999, a total of 8,050 of those overdose deaths involved opioids, and in 2021, a total of 80,411 involved opioids: that’s an increase of almost 900 percent.

The data tells us that opioids are involved in just over 75 of all drug overdose fatalities.

The destructive effects of opioid use and opioid use disorder (OUD) are no secret. The sharp increase in overdose deaths in between 2015 and 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, and overdose fatalities surpassed 100,000 in 2021 for the first time since we started keeping records on overdose fatalities.

The need for effective, evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder is more important now than ever before.

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

Accessing treatment can be a challenge for anyone. It can be even more complicated for individuals with an identity outside the sexual and gender majority. 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 negative effects, which include significant health problems, emotional problems, and problems with relationships, work, and education.

People who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer face discrimination and stigma not encountered by individuals in the gender and sexual majority. They experience higher rates of bullying, harassment, and physical 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. In 2015, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) included a series of questions designed to calculate rates of substance use, misuse, and disordered use among individuals who identify as LGBTQ. In the survey, LGBTQ adults report significantly higher patterns of substance use than the overall population. Statistics show the following:

Marijuana, Alcohol, and Opioid Use: LGBTQ Community

  • 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 that, in order to better serve the LGBTQ community, providers need to focus on programs that cater to the specific needs of LGBTQ individuals. People in the LGBTQ community report higher rates of mental health disorders and report higher rates and suicidal ideation., as well. Adding opioids to the equation exacerbates the problem. Specialized LGBTQ treatment for opioid use disorder can make a difference. Evidence-based, LGBTQ-specific treatment can be the difference between long-term addiction and recovery, starting in treatment and relapses, and, in some cases, the difference between life and death.

In other words, the stakes around finding a solution to the cycle of substance misuse in the LGBTQ community are very high.

What is LGBTQ-Specific Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder?

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 counterparts in the sexual and gender majority 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.

We’ll repeat that, because it’s important: inclusion and acceptance is what we need, rather than exclusion and stigma. A member of the LGBTQ community would choose LGBTQ-specific treatment because they’d be welcomed, rather than stigmatized. The choice has to do with fair and equal treatment, rather than any type of need for separation or exclusivity.

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 confusion on the part of providers sends the message that LGBTQ people don’t belong. and makes it harder for them to find the lifechanging and lifesaving help and support they 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 substance use disorder treatment facilities promote their programs as LGBTQ friendly. But we have a question:

How often do they follow through and provide LBGTQ- specific treatment when a member of the LGBTQ community arrives for treatment?

In one study, researchers examined a treatment directory listing the 20 states with the highest opioid overdose rates in the nation. Here’s how they conducted the study:

  • Researchers contacted 570 facilities that advertised LGBTQ-specific services
  • 446 facilities responded
  • Of the facilities that responded, only 125 confirmed they offered the specialized LGBTQ programs and groups as advertised.

That’s only 28 percent – and that’s a serious problem.

The study likely only 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 help. When 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 type of stigma that may have contributed to developing a substance use disorder 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 improves results, which is the outcome everyone wants.

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 use, misuse, and disordered use starts with increasing the availability of LGBTQ treatment for opioid use disorder. That’s something that every facility around the country can do to make an immediate and significant impact.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.