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Substance Use Among The LGBTQ Population in Oregon

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From an early age, you felt different. Through the confusion was birthed a new awareness of being out of place due to your feelings in a world that has long battled over what your orientation should be.

At times, these feelings and emotions are often added to pressures from your home environment and the struggle of fitting in during school years.

Fighting Back Against Rise in Substance Use Among LGBTQ Population in Oregon

As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, challenges are stacked against you in what seems like insurmountable ways. Because of this, many times our members unfortunately find themselves coping with substances that take away all of the anxieties and stresses the outside world puts on us.

LGBTQ Member of the community

In searching out escapes from the world, often we find ourselves gathering together in bars and nightclubs where there is a sense of safety found in being with those that we know with certainty accept us—unlike some of the outside world.

For years, this has been a common scene in gay culture, and far too often it has led to addiction, but it is important to know there are other options.

LGBTQ+ Rates of Use Disorders Are Sky High

As millions of LGBTQ+ members turn to substances and alcohol in either coping with mental health distress or finding a safe place in nightlife, the statistics pop off the page to anyone examining the research.

Across the board, LGBTQ+ individuals rate for higher use of alcohol, illicit substances, and tobacco according to research published in LGBT Health.

In use of tobacco, nearly one in every four of those involved in the study as gay individuals were dealing with a tobacco use disorder. At 24.6 percent, the rate outpaced the heterosexual respondents’ rate of 17 percent, while bisexual respondents’ rates were an astounding 33.4 percent.

The level of disorders includes those with mild, moderate and severe disorders.

The same trend of use continued in both drug and alcohol use disorders.

While just 3.8 percent of heterosexual respondents were found to have a substance use disorder, gay and lesbian respondents more than doubled the rate at 7.8 percent. Bisexual persons in the study were found to be at a rate of higher than one in ten (11.5) percent.

Likely the most concerning statistic was the alcohol use rate among gay, lesbian, and bisexual respondents to the LGBT Health published study. The study found that 25.4 percent of those of gay and lesbian orientation and 29.9 percent of those with a bisexual orientation had an alcohol use disorder.

LGTBQ Rates of Use Disorders are sky high

The rates of use are troubling, and there are even more troubling figures when examining the lives of young transgender Americans.

A recent California Healthy Kids survey found that transgender students are 2.5 times more likely to use drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine than their cisgender peers.

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Slow Movement Toward LGBTQ+ Mental Health Awareness

Society has made many steps in the right direction over the course of the last five or six decades in terms of acceptance and awareness of societal challenges that face the LGBTQ+ population throughout the world, especially in the United States.

Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), has found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons are twice as likely as heterosexual adults to face a mental health condition.

For transgender individuals, the rate increases to four times.

LGTBQ Twice As Likely TO suffer from substance abuse

Tyler TerMeer is the CEO of the Cascade AIDS Project in Portland. Created in 1983, the Cascade AIDS Project, is the oldest and largest community-based provider of HIV services, housing, education, and advocacy in Oregon and southwest Washington.

As a leader in the Portland community and an activist for LGBTQ+ rights, TerMeer shared his views on the United States’ and Oregon’s growth in mental health.

“Society has come a long way, but mental health issues are still too stigmatized and mental health treatment is still not accessible enough,” TerMeer said. “For the LGBTQ+ population, awareness of, and resources dedicated to, mental health disparities affecting the LGBTQ+ community—like suicide rates among LGBTQ+ youth—are nowhere near adequate.”

Serenity Lane LGTBQ stigma quote

“The LGBTQ+ community has obviously come a long way in recent years, but there is still work to be done in addressing the stigma and shame experienced by LGBTQ+ folks,” TerMeer said.

“Trans people, especially trans women of color, are killed at greatly disproportionate rates to the general population. The stress and emotional toll of this reality can’t be understated. People turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with these feelings. Until we can build a society that doesn’t murder trans, queer, lesbian, and gay individuals merely for existing, we will have to treat the symptoms of that stress which includes substance abuse and addiction issues.”

With these stresses to mental health, often LGBTQ+ community members turn to safe spaces within their community. More often than not, that place is a bar or nightclub.

A Brief History of LGBTQ Culture in the United States

Bars and nightclubs have long been the place that those identifying as LGBTQ+ turned to find safety in a world where they still do not feel accepted.

Dating back beyond possibly the most eventful night in American history for the LGBTQ+ population, the Stonewall riots in New York City, (where community members fought back against police harassment by standing ground at their frequented bar), gay culture has been tied to bars and nightclubs.

In communities across the country, gay bars are a place of safety and freedom from outside harassment and non-acceptance.

“For many LGBTQ+ people, bars and clubs have historically been one of the only places where they could find community and safety,” TerMeer said. “It’s been a safe place for us to gather and to celebrate who we are. Ultimately, though, higher rates of addiction in the LGBTQ+ community have the same root cause as the need for gay bars and clubs: systemic homophobia and transphobia.”

LGTBQ Nightclub Scene Serenity Lane

TerMeer acknowledged that when your safe space is a place where drugs and alcohol are prevalent, dependence is possible. However, to solely blame the bar scene in LGBTQ+ culture would be overlooking the fact that there is still an overwhelming stigma facing the world’s LGBTQ+ population.

“It’s easy to become dependent on drugs and alcohol when this is your only safe space,” TerMeer said. “But again, these are merely symptoms of a larger social issue with acceptance and tolerance. It’s facile to blame the bar scene for addiction issues and ignore the larger social context where queer people are still discriminated against for existing.”

Coping With Substances Begins at an Early Age

Research from the Prevention Resource Center in Rhode Island has found that LGBTQ+ youth are 2 to 4 times more likely to try substances than heterosexual peers. Sexual minority youth have higher rates of usage in cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and injection drugs.

Serenity Lane LGTBQ youth 2-4 times as likely to have substance abuse

The research also laid out reasons that LGBTQ+ youth often turn toward substance use.

The most common reasons found were

  • Experimentation, similar to heterosexual youth

  • Stigma and discrimination from peers

  • Rejection, avoidance and harm by peers

  • Disapproval, mistreatment and violence from family

  • Bullying from classmates

  • Additional, self-imposed challenges

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Where Does Oregon Fit In?

It is well known that Portland has been a leader in the United States for gay rights and gay population. Behind San Francisco, Portland has the second highest LGBTQ+ population in the country.

Our history of leadership in gay rights is likely most prominent in our political stances. From Mayor Neil Goldschmidt’s Gay Pride Day Proclamation in 1977 to our elections of Virginia Linder to the Oregon Supreme Court and Mayor Sam Adams being the first in the country’s history, Portland has long led the way.

Serenity Lane LGTBQ where does Oregon fit in

TerMeer claims that LGBTQ-friendly cities like Portland can slip into complacency, but must instead be a leader in making changes to LGBTQ+ acceptance.

“I think in an LGBTQ-friendly city like Portland, it’s easy to slip into complacency, as if the issues that affect LGBTQ+ people everywhere don’t affect us here,” TerMeer said. “But an LGBTQ-friendly culture is not enough to overcome deep-seated issues like these, so we need to fight that tendency.”

Oregon rates high in the country in nightlife and hospitality.

The Portland-Metro area has the fifth-most number of bars of any city in the United States, and we have the most breweries in the entire country. Bend Oregon, leads the country in the breweries per capita, and the state of Oregon is the leading state in breweries.

San Francisco, the only city in the United States with a higher population of LGBTQ+ residents, has the most bars in the country.

The crossover between the two is evident, but as TerMeer said earlier, it does not tell the whole story.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), Oregon ranks fifth in the country (24.6 percent) in population dealing with depression.

For Oregonians that have turned to substances for their mental health challenges, it is important to have a place to turn when the dependency has become too much.

Oregon Can Guide the Way

With a strong history in gay rights activism and a large population that can handle the burden, Oregon can be a leader in changing the stigma and societal views throughout the country of LGBTQ+ people.

Serenity Lane Oregon can lead the way

“Portland, and Oregon as a whole, is a place where people come to live authentic lives as queer people,” TerMeer said.

“Portland benefits greatly from the LGBTQ+ community and the creativity and vibrancy we bring. We owe it to them to address these issues in an honest and straightforward way. In order to address mental health and addiction issues in the LGBTQ+ community we have to address the underlying issues. Until we can get it right in a place like Portland, how can we hope to make it better in other places? Portland needs to lead by example and ensure that LGBTQ+ people are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve just like anybody else.”

In leading the way, it is of the utmost importance that organizations like Serenity Lane Alcohol and Drug Treatment Services step into the role of giving the vast LGBTQ+ population in Oregon a safe place to heal from substance misuse and find the root of their addiction with mental health treatment.

Serenity Lane Steps To the Plate

Since 1973, Serenity Lane has offered treatment for alcohol and drug use in Oregon as a non-profit and private center.

With locations throughout Oregon and southwest Washington, Serenity Lane has been a pioneer in the Pacific Northwest in creating programs that combine outpatient and residential services to better fill the needs of those suffering from substance and alcohol use disorders.

While treating substance addiction is at the forefront of Serenity Lane’s program, there is a special focus given to mental health as well. Oftentimes, a mental health disorder has led to substance use.

Those seeking treatment for their addiction may be battling mental health issues such as depression, grief, PTSD, eating disorders, or anxiety. The combination of the mental health disorder and addiction is called a co-occuring disorder.

With a highly-skilled medical staff including psychiatrists, mental health professionals, and counselors on site, Serenity Lane is ready and able to assist a wide array of complex issues that any number of patients may face.

Having a place in the community, like Serenity Lane, is incredibly important in the eyes of TerMeer.

“It is incredibly important for two reasons,” TerMeer said. “First, the more we create awareness around addiction in the LGBTQ+ community, the more members of our community can recognize substance-use disorder (SUD) in themselves and those around them, and the more aware we are of how to get LGBTQ-affirming help. Visibility has been the key to our community’s success in moving from the margins to the mainstream. Second, it’s important to create awareness about addiction in the LGBTQ+ community in order to educate policymakers and direct prevention and treatment resources to our community.”

Make the Call Today

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If you or a loved one in the Pacific Northwest is struggling with addiction or substance misuse, it is important to not waste a minute, and begin the path to recovery today.

With Oregon locations in Salem, Portland, Bend, Eugene, Roseburg, Coburg and Albany, Serenity Lane provides equal care to all patients, regardless of ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, religion, or gender identity. There is also one location in Washington. 

Serenity Lane’s phone lines are open, and there is somebody ready to take your call to begin admission any day of the week. Call 541-262-0598 today to make a change.

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LGTBQ Substance Use Infographic
Non-profit treatment centers for
alcohol and drug addictions.
Treatment facilities located in:

Coburg, Eugene, SE Portland, SW Portland, Salem, Albany, Bend, and Roseburg, OR