Culturally competent treatment is essential for trans people recovering from substance use

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Transgender individuals often turn to substances to cope with the trauma and challenges of simply existing on a daily basis. Anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of these individuals suffer from substance use disorder (SUD).

For far too many, the challenge in overcoming the disease of addiction is compounded by a lack of safe spaces for recovery, both in terms of finding a supportive treatment program and living sober within the transgender community.

As a licensed therapist who now specializes in addiction treatment for the LGBTQ+ community, I’ve seen it firsthand. I have worked in practices where I was the only therapist who was comfortable with and willing to work with transgender patients. Since then, I’ve grown passionate about being an ally and helping this fun, loving, and accepting group of people get the care they deserve to overcome the disease of addiction.

Fortunately, there are programs now available that offer supportive, transgender-friendly addiction treatment where individuals can get the medical, behavioral, and mental health care they need in a safe, welcoming environment.

Compounding traumas create barriers to treatment

As if SUD wasn’t difficult enough to overcome, for thousands of transgender individuals across the country, the situation can be even tougher. Transgender individuals face aggression and discrimination at virtually every turn simply going throughout their normal day. With the political climate and societal attitudes becoming increasingly volatile, they face ongoing harassment, discrimination, and even violence.

This alone can cause serious mental and emotional trauma. Haunted by the deadliest mass shooting in American history and ongoing violence against their community, transgender individuals are four times more likely to be the victims of violent crime. Nearly half of transgender people have been the victims of sexual assault or rape and anti-transgender violence reached a record high in 2021.

Couple this with barriers to healthcare and a lack of acceptance in society or even among their own families, it’s no wonder that transgender individuals are nearly three times as likely to suffer from addiction than the general population. These daily challenges can make it extremely difficult for transgender individuals to get the life-saving addiction recovery treatment they need.

If they do manage to enroll in treatment, finding long-term support afterwards – which is essential to maintaining sobriety – can be difficult. Because there are so few safe spaces for the transgender community, they often rely on bars and nightclubs as gathering places, but being in an environment of alcohol and drugs can obviously make staying sober difficult.

There are also few recovery role models who are relevant and relatable for the transgender community. While we’re seeing a growing number of celebrities and high-profile people come forward to talk about their addiction journeys, transgender people are severely unrepresented. This void makes it hard for transgender individuals to see themselves on the other side.

Transgender-friendly treatment is available

The good news is safe, supportive addiction treatment for transgender individuals is available, and it’s essential for recovery. For those seeking support, start by looking for facilities that offer specific programs for transgender people where you can find individualized programs that cater to your specific needs. Transgender-specific or LGBTQ+-specific therapy – including programs that fully accommodate correct pronouns, minimize micro-aggressions, and provide an overall atmosphere of acceptance that permeates the entire facility – is critical for feeling safe and having a sense of belonging.

Another quality to seek out in a program is the ability to invite an ally – whether it be a friend, loved one, or someone in your community – to group therapy. For example, at River Oaks Treatment Center, we have found that encouraging clients to bring their support system with them to group therapy greatly increases an individual’s ability to seek treatment and feel a sense of camaraderie. These allies now serve as big brothers and sisters to newcomers for added support – demonstrating to our clients that they are loved, accepted, and not alone in their recovery journey.

Because ongoing support after in-patient treatment is critical for long-term recovery, the best transgender addiction treatment programs will also maintain a network of alumni to serve as mentors, sponsors, and supporters. Cultivating that community and creating safe spaces for transgender people in recovery to gather is essential for preventing relapse.

As the inequities and risks of being transgender and SUD continue to mount, we as providers must rise to the challenge. These individuals deserve our help, and they deserve access to safe, welcoming, and culturally appropriate programs to help them achieve and maintain sobriety.

Karah Moody is lead therapist at River Oaks Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility.

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