Co-Occurring Disorders: Trauma and Substance Abuse Among LGBTQ+

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June marks Pride Month, a time for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals to celebrate the forward movement for the community. Society has made incredible strides towards acceptance over the last few decades. Pride Month serves as an opportunity to share stories of triumph in the face of discrimination and adversity. And with growth, there is still adversity. LGBT+ identifying individuals experience disproportionate levels of violence and rejection leaving many fearful and on guard.

The 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando shocked the nation and brought the reality of that fear to the public eye. This extreme act of violence, though the largest, is far from being an isolated incident. LGBT+ hate crimes have increased 86% between 2016 and 2017. With the increase of hate crimes and targeted violence, the development of traumatic disorders has plagued the community.

Many individuals handle their trauma by turning to substances to numb the pain, fear, and discomfort. This combination of trauma and substance abuse, a potential co-occurring disorder, is a dangerous combination that can create even more problems if left unrecognized and properly treated. Pride Month is a time to celebrate while also acknowledging the many challenges LGBT+ individuals encounter.

LGBTQ+ Mental Health Risk Factors

According to the American Psychological Association, members of the LGBTQ+ community experience trauma at higher rates than those who are not. While progress has been made in some areas, a lack of protections and the risk of bullying or harassment are disproportionally higher for LGBTQ+ individuals. Pride Month is an opportunity to highlight the strength of those living authentically and recognize the opportunity we all have to support every person’s right to be treated equally. While this shouldn’t be limited to just one month each year, it allows for the highlighting of the discrimination and resulting trauma many face every day.

Harassment in School

Despite the progress over the last few decades, LGBTQ+ individuals still face harassment and discrimination in school. 75% of LGBTQ+ students in grades K-12 report having been harassed at school at least once. Sometimes the bullying goes further than verbal attacks; 35% of students experience physical assault, and 12% are victims of sexual violence. Many carry these experiences into their adulthood.

Family Rejection

Family rejection is too common of an experience for the LGBTQ+ community. Many people delay coming out until they’re old enough to move out to keep themselves safe. They fear judgment and ostracization from both immediate and extended family members. There are countless stories of LGBTQ+ youth and adults alike who lose family over their sexuality or gender identity. Family rejection has a serious impact on self-esteem and mental health, causing issues that last well beyond their adolescent years.

Religious Trauma

LGBTQ+ individuals raised in deeply religious families can especially have a difficult time. Some religious communities disapprove of those who live as their authentic selves. Religious trauma can leave a person with questions and confusion about their self-worth and their place in the world.

Trauma and the LGBTQ+ Community

Trauma is an emotional response to a devastating event such as an accident or assault. After going through a traumatic event, people often experience a sense of denial, unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and more. Traumatic experiences leave people feeling a lack of control and a residual sense of fear and anxiety.

Anyone can experience trauma. Life is unpredictable, and anything can happen. However, the LGBTQ+ community is particularly vulnerable to a range of potentially traumatic experiences. These individuals too often are singled out for being different from the time they’re young. The lifelong experiences of being on the outside looking in can affect their mental health.

This painful reality means many in the LGBTQ+ community have experienced at least one traumatic experience at some point in their life. Whether it’s a hate crime, relentless bullying, physical or sexual assault, neglect or abandonment from loved ones, religious trauma, or a general fear for their safety, trauma is something this segment of the population is all familiar with.

Self-Medicating the Problem

Trauma in the LGBTQ+ community is a serious concern, especially when coupled with poor coping skills. Oftentimes people turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain and fear that results from experiencing trauma. Although temporary,  substances provide a reduction of negative feelings associated with trauma. This behavior often leads to a cyclical increase in symptoms.

Co-Occurring Disorders

In some cases, self-medication progresses into a substance abuse problem. The presence of both a substance use disorder and a mental illness is called a co-occurring disorder. Co-occurring disorders are difficult to manage because the conditions tend to exacerbate one another.

The prevalence of co-occurring disorders is on the rise. 3.6 million adults ages 18 and older, or 2.8% of the population, have both a substance use disorder and a serious mental illness. According to data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, this is up from 1.7% of the population in 2015.

Treatment for co-occurring disorders must consider both conditions individually as well as the ways they interact. Some treatment facilities specialize in providing care for individuals with co-occurring diagnoses.

Effective Treatment for Trauma in the LGBTQ+ Community

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there are significant gaps in treatment for the LGBTQ+ community. Of the 6.8 million individuals with any mental illness in 2019, 45.7% received no treatment.

While these numbers are alarming, the rates for those with co-occurring disorders are staggering. 1.9 million LGBTQ+ adults needed treatment for a co-occurring disorder in 2019, but only 13.2% received it. That means 1.6 million people who needed treatment went without it. How can these individuals find the help they need?

Oftentimes LGBTQ+ people worry that the stigma associated with their identity will affect or hinder their treatment experience too. This is one of the major barriers between LGBTQ+ individuals and effective mental health treatment.

Providing effective treatment for trauma in the LGBTQ+ community requires individualized care and attention. The first step in finding an effective treatment is ensuring a facility recognizes the unique conditions that many of these people have survived. Pasadena Villa is an LGBTQ+ affirming treatment environment that understands the specific struggles this community faces and how mental health disorders can impact their lives.

Pasadena Villa provides comprehensive, caring treatment services for individuals struggling with mental illness and other conditions. Our individualized approach to care creates the perfect fit for anyone concerned that treatment might not be for them. If you’re tired of battling mental illness alone, Pasadena Villa is here to help. Whether you’re looking for an intensive inpatient program or an adaptable outpatient setting, we have the right center for you.

Fill out our online contact form to learn more about the programs we offer and what we can do to help you today.

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