While society as a whole has become more tolerant and open about sexuality in recent years, gay teens still deal with crushing amounts of stress. These added pressure in their lives may make them more susceptible to substance abuse. How do we help these kids?
Substance abuse is always a concern for parents of tweens and teens. But for teens who are struggling with their sexuality or those who have already come out to family and friends, the stakes may be higher. Experts who work with LGBT teens are noticing an uptick in the number of teens they see who are struggling not only with acceptance and identity, but also with addiction.
Why turn to drugs?
Cali Estes is an addictions coach and therapist who has worked for over 18 years with clients battling drug, alcohol and food addictions. We asked Estes if she has noticed a recent increase in LGBT teens battling addiction. “Yes,” she shares. “A lot of teens that have not discussed their LGBT status — have not declared it in the open — will self-medicate in fear of being abandoned or shunned by their parents, teachers and fellow students.” When teens feel trapped by lies or misunderstood in some way by family and friends, drugs and alcohol make that feeling go away — albeit, temporarily. Tasha Holland-Kornegay, Ph.D., L.P.C., shares her thoughts, “In my experience, yes I am treating more gay teens that suffer with chemical dependency. These teens are dealing with harassment at school [and] non-accepting parents/family members, along with other members of society that continue to struggle with homosexuality in teens.”
“The LGBT adolescent community faces more complex issues when it comes to social acceptance,” says Dr. Robin Barnett, Ed.D., L.C.S.W., L.C.A.D.C., CEO and administrator at Park Bench Group Counseling. “In a critical time of self-discovery and identification, recognizing sexual preferences and gender identity are a reality that can be frightening, isolating and very lonely.” Barnett shares that many times, teens feel the need to create a fake persona in order to fit in. “Anytime that we aren’t honest with ourselves and the important people in our lives, internal conflict and shame begin to take hold,” she adds. “Substance abuse creates an emotional numbing agent, and also creates a deterrent from the real issue and the need to address it.”
Personal stories of pain
Allison Tray is a successful business owner in Brooklyn, and is also a gay woman. “I can tell you that drugs stem from depression and depression in LGBT teens often is born out of bullying and non-acceptance,” she shares. “Ninety percent of our advertising and our celebrities identify as straight. Until our children see a broad range of diversity and lifestyle they will continue to feel as though they don’t fit in,” Tray adds.
Marcus (not his real name) shares that the pressure of being gay but not out made him turn to alcohol in his teens. “It was easily accessible and I really didn’t know where to get drugs, anyway,” he shares. “I also was focused on doing well in school and didn’t want to jeopardize that with drugs. However, as time went on, I began to consume more and more alcohol — sometimes going through multiple bottles of wine, vodka and scotch a week. I lived like this for years before coming out,” he adds. “And when I did, it felt like so much stress was lifted off of me.”
A patient of Estes’ fears the reaction of his father because he already knows what it will be. “I have a 16-year-old male that I see for opiate and benzo addiction and he is afraid to share openly with his family and schoolmates because his father is a very strict Marine and has declared that ‘he hates homos,’ so my client is stuck in fear of sharing [because he thinks] that his father will be angry and disown him,” Estes says. “It is very difficult if these kids do not have a safe window of expression and ability to be themselves. Anyone living in fear of being themselves will use drugs to numb and not deal with the issues,” she adds.
Words can hurt
Marcus shares an insight that all parents can learn from. “I don’t think that parents or role models realize how comments they make over the course of child rearing have a fundamental impact on one’s life,” he shares. “Things like a grandparent telling me ‘don’t walk that way’ or ‘don’t dress like that’ only make one more and more afraid to come out of the closet. You feel that you cannot be who you are. When you say to a child or teenager not to do something that isn’t harming anyone else, you are instilling in them a belief that how they are acting is inherently wrong,” he adds.
Acceptance is the answer
How can we try to turn things around for these teens before they get deep into drug or alcohol addiction? The resounding answer is acceptance. “Educate the parents,” says Estes. “No child should be afraid that a parent will not like them or disown them because they are not the same as their parent. There also needs to be classes in school taught so kids are not picked on, bullied or threatened for ‘being different.’ Counselors and school therapists should be schooled in LGBT needs and able to address any issues the student is having before the student feels so alone that he or she needs to use drugs,” Estes adds.
Holland-Kornegay counsels families who are dealing with the acceptance of their child’s sexuality. “Work on processing or assessing insecurities or homophobic fears,” she says. “You will not be able to help your child until you help yourself.” She also suggest that parents be open with their children and discuss their fears.
How to help
If more LGBT teens are turning to drugs, how can we help? “Support for these teens must begin at the beginning,” says Barnett. “Families need to be aware of their own prejudices, schools need to offer support and services and teens need a safe place to be themselves and to allow their true self to develop without fear. Discrimination and bullying need to be addressed swiftly, and LGBT kids need the opportunity to share their conflict with a supportive and guiding person or group,” she adds. “Parental intervention early on can help teens to more readily accept themselves when there is no fear of shame or losing the important people in their life.”
“We need to reach out to our kids, and most often that starts with parents… and that’s especially true for parents of LGBT teens,” says Dr. Daniel Headrick, founder and medical director of Mission Pacific Coast Recovery, part of the St. Joseph Health network. “Parents need to say, ‘OK we’re having an issue, whether it’s self-identity or bullying at school or something else. Now, what are we going to do about it?’ Taking a drug isn’t going to solve the problem — parents need to give their teens alternatives. The most important thing parents can do is establish that they are in it together with their teens, and that turning to chemicals will only make things worse,” he adds.