Substance Abuse

LGBTQ youth and substance use are significantly more likely than their heterosexual peers to experiment with substances. Coming out, rejection, trauma, and isolation are just a few of the causes. Read on to learn more and how you can help.

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What to Know About Substance Use

I feel that one of the most effective ways to educate ourselves and our children about substance use is to actually have conversations on the topic, to learn as much as we can from credible sources and to arm our kids with information, not fear. This section begins with an excerpt I cut from my book. I will continue to add articles and resources.

It is not surprising that, more often than not, LGBTQ youth and substance use go hand-in-hand with mental health disorders, specifically depression and anxiety. Commonly called co-occurring disorders or dual diagnosis, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that 60% of teens struggling with substance use also struggle with a mental health disorder.

The human brain, specifically the frontal lobe, continues to develop throughout adolescence into early adulthood, around age 25. It is why you may be puzzled by how extraordinarily smart your teen is one minute, and the next is behaving like an absolute idiot. Decision-making and impulse control are just two of the many mental and physical functions the frontal lobe controls.

Knowing that both mental health disorders and polysubstance abuse have roots in one’s biology, genetics, psychology, and environment helps grasp the enormity of these issues and understand why there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

LGBTQ youth and substance use go beyond alcohol consumption and marijuana use. It also includes both over-the-counter and prescription medications, hallucinogens, and vaping. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by their senior year in high school, 75% of U.S. teens have experimented with alcohol, 50% have smoked marijuana, and 21% have abused prescription medications.

Teens are more sophisticated in their use than they were even a decade ago, making it much more difficult to simply smell any substance on them. If you are concerned and they have passed the “smell” test, here is a basic list of signs that your teen may be using substances:

  • Red eyes or constricted pupils
  • Flushed cheeks
  • Hysterical laughter or loud, non-sensical behavior
  • Unusual clumsiness
  • Repeatedly missing curfew
  • Becoming secretive about their plans or vague plans

The next big question is, should you search their room? The teenage years are a delicate dance of respecting their growing need for privacy while maintaining communication and keeping them safe. It is developmentally appropriate for them to begin to pull away, close their bedroom doors, and test boundaries as they move toward independence. I know the thought of them moving out of the safety tree called home is enough to trigger a full-on panic attack; however, remember that is the ultimate goal!

So, to search or not to search. It is actually quite simple. If you are concerned about your teen’s safety, search away. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are 18, and it doesn’t matter whether they have 10 signs on the door telling you to stay out. They live under your roof, and their health and safety are your number one priority.

It never occurred to me to search Connor’s room. He had always been a rule follower, a pleaser, and an over-achiever in everything he did – until he wasn’t. His incredible intelligence allowed him the ability to master manipulation. It wasn’t until almost too late that we realized that our darling boy was brilliant at living two lives.

The first time I found substances in Connor’s room was by complete accident. It was the beginning of summer, a few months after he had come out to us, and I was looking for water bottles. I swear they are like socks and spoons – they just disappear into thin air. His was the last room to search, and as I looked under his bathroom sink, I hit the jackpot. Not water bottles, though. A homemade bong and an Altoids box filled with marijuana. Yeah. Take that in for a minute. I remember standing there, stunned, completely abandoning my prior hunt. It was one of those moments where time slows and yet somehow also whips around you like an inferno.

As my shock slowly morphed into sadness, then fear, and finally anger, I got the courage to look in drawers, under his bed, and in his closet. I had a neat collection of a vape pen, vape cartridges, and a Gatorade bottle filled with alcohol by the time I was finished. And thus began the third layer of our journey.

Wondering what to look for or where to look?

  • Mint boxes or tins; candy containers
  • Any plastic bottle – do NOT assume the liquid is water
  • Duffle or gym bags
  • Shoeboxes
  • Inside books
  • Sock drawers – INSIDE the socks
  • Inside the water tank of the toilet
  • Shampoo (etc.) bottles
  • Pockets of off-season gear
  • Inside make-up cases
  • Buried in the dirt of indoor plants
  • Under loose floorboards

In following the pattern of increased mental health disorders in LGBTQ youth and substance use and abuse also increase in LGBTQ+ teens. It doesn’t require a degree in psychology to understand why. In addition to the regular growing pains of adolescence, coming to realize that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning adds a totally confusion-filled layer that is often wrought with fear, shame, denial, anger, and isolation. So we need to mentoring LGBTQ youth.

More often than not, they turn to some kind of self-medication to numb the overwhelming pounding of emotion and reality. In fact, a study completed by Associate Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Researcher Michael Marshal found that compared to their heterosexual peers, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer teens are 1.3 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 1.6 times more likely to use marijuana, 2.9 times more likely to use injectable drugs and 3.3 times more likely to use cocaine. There is no adequate research on substance use in transgender teens at this time, but based on anecdotal evidence, the concern is warranted.

Club drugs are more prevalent with LGBTQ+ teens than with their heterosexual peers. They are hallucinogens and stimulants, including MDMA (Ecstasy or Molly) and methamphetamine (Crystal meth or Tina).

It is important to understand that being LGBTQ+ does NOT cause substance abuse, but rather the weight of their coming out process as well as the pressures and messages they are receiving from their world drive them to find a way to block it all.

  • Bullying and harassment
  • Family conflict and rejection
  • Minority stress
  • Childhood abuse
  • Gender stereotypes

Understanding, knowing what to look for, and asking questions helps us provide the support they need to avoid substances.


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