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Gay Teens Turning to Drugs & Alcohol

By Hugh C. McBride

Though overall usage rates have decreased in recent years, drug and alcohol abuse among teenagers remains a cause for concern in the United States. The problem is particularly acute among certain high-risk demographic groups – one of which is comprised of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teens.

A study by Dr. Michael P. Marshal of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center revealed that LGBT teens are 190 percent more likely to use drugs and alcohol than are heterosexual teens, and that the usage rate is even higher among certain subgroups. For example, Marshal’s study, which was published in the April 2008 edition of the journal Addiction, documented that the prevalence of drug or alcohol use among bisexual youth is 340 percent greater than the rate among straight teens. Among lesbian youth, the number rises to 400 percent.

Discrimination & Victimization

Marshal, whose team analyzed data that had been collected during 18 studies between 1994 and 2006, attributed the spike in drug and alcohol use among LGBT teens to the considerable societal pressures faced by the members of this demographic group.

“Homophobia, discrimination and victimization are largely what are responsible for these substance use disparities in young gay people,” Marshal said in a March 25, 2008 press release that was posted on the Addiction website. “History shows that when marginalized groups are oppressed and do not have equal opportunities and equal rights, they suffer. Our results show that gay youth are clearly no exception.”

Human Rights Watch, a nongovernmental organization that investigates and reports on human rights matters throughout the world, analyzed the status of gay youth in the United States for a report that was released in 2001.

In the introduction to “Hatred in the Hallways,” the report’s authors indicated that researchers had discovered an educational environment in which gay students faced considerable obstacles:

This report is about the failure of the government, specifically public school officials, teachers, and administrators, to fulfill their obligation to ensure that all youth enjoy their right to education in an environment where they are protected from discrimination, harassment, and violence...

Gay youth spend an inordinate amount of energy plotting … how to become invisible so they will not be verbally and physically attacked. …No child should have to go to school in survival mode.

A section of the HRW report titled “Coping with Harassment and Violence” cited statistics from a 1999 Massachusetts study, the findings of which were consistent with what University of Pittsburgh analysts would report nine years later:

According to the survey, sexual minority youth – those who have identified themselves as lesbian, gay, or bisexual or who have had any same-sex sexual contact – had higher lifetime rates of marijuana use (70 percent compared to 49 percent of all other youth), cocaine (29 percent compared to 9 percent), methamphetamine (30 percent compared to 7 percent), and injected drugs (18 percent compared to 2 percent).

Destructive Effects

LAMBDA, an advocacy association dedicated to improving the quality of life of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth, says the effects of pressure and discrimination are not limited to alcohol and drug use. In the Youth Outreach section of its website, LAMBDA reports the following:

  • A 1999 study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide  than are heterosexual teens.
  • According to this same DHHS study, 30 percent of successful teen suicides are by gay, lesbian, or bisexual youths.
  • An estimated 40 percent of street kids – many of whom turn to prostitution or other abusive situations after running away or being thrown out of their homes – are gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
  • Researchers have reported that more than one in four LGBT youth have severe drug or alcohol problems.

Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association), which cited a 2001 report that 31 percent of gay youth were threatened or injured during the previous academic year, also noted that the dropout rate among homosexual students is three times greater than it is among heterosexual youth.
The Human Rights Watch’s “Hatred in the Hallways” report stated that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are three times as likely as their non-gay peers to have been assaulted, threatened, or injured with a weapon at school, and are almost four times more likely to miss school because of fears for their safety.
“Lavonn R.” one of the gay students interviewed for the “Hatred” report (all interviewees were assigned pseudonyms in the publication), said this type of abuse and stigmatization led to her involvement with drugs and alcohol
“When you get to the point where there’s no one else there to listen to you, to be your friend, you’ll turn to anybody,” Lavonn told her interviewer. “So that’s how I started going down that route, experiencing a lot of things 14- and 15-year-olds shouldn’t … If somebody had been there for me when I was younger, maybe I would have got to avoid a lot of problems.”

Turning the Tide
Given stories and statistics like these, the outlook would appear to be bleak for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered youth – and many of these teens and adolescents do, indeed, face considerable challenges in their lives.

But Michael Marshal, who led the University of Pittsburgh study on alcohol and drug use among LGB teens, says that the prognosis does not have to be universally grim.
“It is important to remember that the vast majority of gay youth are happy and healthy, despite the stressors of living in a violent, homophobic society,” Marshal said in the Addiction press release. “More than anything, gay youth need love, support and acceptance from their family members and friends. It also is imperative that health care providers offer a safe, confidential environment to discuss health care needs with gay teens.”