Studies Show Higher Alcohol and Substance Abuse in LGBTQ Community Amid Pandemic

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday February 10, 2021

New studies have found that binge-drinking, alcohol abuse and substance use have increased among men who have sex with men (MSM) during the COVID-19 pandemic, NBC News reports.

Studies found that alcohol consumption in the general public has increased by 14 percent during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found that 13 percent of adults in the U.S. reported having either started or increased their substance use — defined by the study as "alcohol, legal or illegal drugs, or prescription drugs that are takin in a way not recommended by your doctor" — as a means of coping with the stress and heightened emotions caused by the pandemic. Both figures are at a lower rate than that of the LGBTQ community.

One study found that one-third of gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM) participants reported an increase in their alcohol consumption. About one-fifth reported an increase in substance use. Results from another study, a survey of LGBTQ college students conducted by The University of Maryland, found that 32 percent of participants reported drinking more during the pandemic.

Many factors appear to have an impact across the board, including boredom, isolation and loneliness. But the LGBTQ community is also impacted by discrimination and stigmatization. Another factor is rejection by family and friends based on one's sexual orientation and/or gender identity — especially for LGBTQ students who were compelled to move back home with unaccepting families as they complete their studies online. Related to this, the inability of young LGBTQ adults to form social bonds through support groups — such as campus LGBTQ organizations — has also impacted mental health, alcohol consumption and substance use.

John Salerno, a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral and community health and co-author of the University of Maryland survey of LGBTQ college students, said that 46 percent of transgender women and 35 percent of queer-identifying students reported an increase in their alcohol consumption since the beginning of the pandemic. "We found that those that reported an increase in alcohol use were more likely to suffer from greater psychological distress compared to those that did not report an increase in alcohol use," Salerno said.

Because LGBTQ people are at greater risk of harassment and violence, distress and depression can often manifest in addictive behaviors. Dianna Sandoval, chief clinical officer of AspenRidge Recovery rehabilitation centers, said, "We're already seeing higher levels of mental health challenges in the LGBT community being compounded with isolation. Because it's so difficult for folks to connect even to the small communities they've built for themselves, due to social distancing, there's an even greater distance between people in the LGBT community. Some people just don't feel that same sense of connection over Zoom."

Christian Cerna-Parker, CEO of New York-based non-profit Clean and Sober, reported that younger people have inquired about their services since the start of the pandemic. "I've seen people as young as 19 come in recently. Normally, people who reach out for help are in their 40s or 50s," he said, noting that since March 2020, there has been a "40 percent increase in people wanting our services." Cerna-Parker says this appears to be the result of joblessness, isolation, and the halt put on everyday activities is "a perfect storm" for increased alcohol and substance use.

"Before they knew it, some of them found they were predisposed to addiction and things got out of hand," Cerna-Parker said. "There's only so much that people can take. If they think: 'I don't have a job, I don't have income, and the government is not sending me unemployment,' there is lack of hope. That's a really dangerous place to be because the only thing they need to self-medicate is alcohol."

The studies of mental health and consumption are essential for LGBTQ visibility and coping with stressors brought on by the pandemic. A recent survey examined the reluctance of LGBTQ people to receive the COVID-19 vaccine but ultimately pointed to more considerable flaws in data collection regarding how best to serve the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community. Adding to a recent mélange of findings, another study shed light on the impact of COVID-19 on people living with HIV>, as well as transgender, homeless, and elder LGBTQ communities. Hopefully, these studies and others will shed light on how to better assist LGBTQ people through the pandemic, one of the darkest moments in modern history.

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.