Here’s how you can support the LGBTQ community when it’s needed most

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We are a gentle, angry people / And we are singing, singing for our lives… We are young and old together / And we are singing, singing for our lives…

Holly Near’s song “Singing for Our Lives” has become an anthem for the LGBTQ community. The lyrics perfectly capture the gentleness of our approach when it comes to caring for one another balanced with the firmness with which we stand for equal rights and against forces that threaten to undermine our community. This year, as we stand in solidarity with our Black brothers and sisters amid a global pandemic, the LGBTQ community brings its sensitivity and strength to both the Pride and Black Lives Matter movements.

Related: Older gay & bisexual adults are more likely to use drugs

And, right now, we must urgently muster both compassion and firm vigilance to help those we care about safely overcome a dual threat to physical and mental well-being within the LGBTQ community: addiction and mental illness amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The strict stay-at-home orders, as well as business and school closures, have been a major challenge for those in active addiction or addiction recovery.

As COVID-19 has spread, it has disproportionately affected communities of color and other marginalized communities including the LGBTQ community. By extension, our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered black brothers and sisters have perhaps had the most negative impact.

The combination of higher rates of substance use and racial disparities in housing, education, and health care, leave this population at extremely high risk of substance use, mental illness, suicide, violence, and COVID-19 complications.

As many as 30 percent of the LGBTQ community already struggle with substance use, compared to just nine percent of the heterosexual cis-gender community, and the problem is even more prevalent among LGBTQ youth. Gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents are 90 percent more likely to use drugs or alcohol than their heterosexual peers. Adding to this challenge, LGBTQ individuals have also faced a number of compounding struggles during COVID-19 that have made them even more vulnerable to addiction and addiction relapse.

  • When colleges closed, LGBTQ students who had found a community in which they finally felt comfortable away from their more conservative hometowns, were forced back to homes that were perhaps less tolerant. Some were driven to hide their authentic selves, where others may have been subjected to discrimination, harassment, or abuse.
  • With elective medical treatments shut down, gender-affirming surgeries were put on hold for many, forcing them to live longer in a body that doesn’t feel like their own.
  • Business closures have disproportionately affected the LGBTQ community, creating serious economic challenges. Nearly a third of LGBTQ people have had their work hours cut compared to just 22 percent of the general population and are twice as likely to say they’ll be worse off financially a year from now.

All of this has been exacerbated by social distancing, which has prohibited gatherings. Formerly stable patients in recovery who depended on their NA and AA meetings have struggled to maintain sobriety without that in-person support. Not to mention the overall isolation has robbed LGBTQ individuals, who often struggle to fit in, of the sense of community they rely on for support.

And now, with Pride month activities canceled across most of the country, the community is being further deprived of the opportunity to gather, express themselves publicly and support one another, adding to the feeling of isolation.

For some, the drive to protest has been channeled into the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ people have been marching in large numbers in cities around the world. While the protests may lead to higher infection rates, many LGBTQ folks believe that the mission of Black Lives Matter is too important to ignore.

Already, before the death of George Floyd, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of LGBTQ patients coming into our facility who share a common theme: they say they were doing ok “until the pandemic hit” or “until lockdown.”

So, as we see COVID-19 cases on the rise across the country, what can we as a community do to help?

Reach out and provide support

Being aware of and acknowledging the struggle is enough in many situations. Simply reaching out to a family member or friend to say, “I’m here for you and I care,” can make a huge difference for someone who’s struggling, especially when their current environment may make them feel as though they can’t be their authentic selves.  

If you’re in a position to offer direct assistance, such as a safe place to stay or financial help to prevent homelessness, even a small amount can help keep a friend or family member from spiraling into substance use or relapse.

Participate in virtual Pride Month activities

While it may not offer the same support and satisfaction that in-person gatherings provide that make Pride Month so emblematic—like being unafraid and open to publicly show affection— it’s still a safe way to maintain a connection to the community. When it seems like the world is otherwise falling apart at the seams, this connection can be vital for maintaining some sense of stability and security for those at risk.

Make safety a priority

The legacy of HIV has made the LGBTQ community keenly aware of the need to protect their health, and for the most part, mindful and embracing of safety measures. That being said, there is also a tendency, especially among young people who may feel invincible, to take greater risks with exposure. If you do gather, even in small groups or outside, wear a mask and be mindful of COVID safety precautions.

Seek out help in a safe place

With limited access to treatment, many LGBTQ individuals who need help may not feel comfortable or accepted in mainstream addiction programs. But there are specialized resources available. For example, our facility at River Oaks Treatment Center has remained open throughout the pandemic and offers a special track for LGBTQ patients. We’ve created an open and welcoming atmosphere where patients can come for detox, rehab, residential treatment, partial hospitalization, etc.—all with infectious disease testing and control protocols firmly in place.

If you or someone you care about needs help, there are still options available. I urge you to take advantage of them.

In times of struggle, community can be our greatest ally in overcoming challenges that are difficult to tackle alone. But, when that community is cut off, we must work extra hard and get creative, to be there for those who need us. While there may not be an option for some of us to stand physically together this Pride Month, we can’t let that stop us from still reaching out to offer the support our community needs to stay well, both physically and mentally.

Michael J. Murphy, MD, MPH, is the Executive Medical Director of River Oaks Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility. Dr. Murphy is a proud member of the LGBTQ community.

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