“Drug addict,” “philanderer,” “lifestyle” … these are the pejoratives that substance abuse professionals used in a workshop I recently attended at a national conference on substance abuse. I was shocked to hear such judgmental and stigma-laden words casually thrown around the room by trained professionals. I have issues with judgmental words and labels; not only on a professional level, but also when talking to others from the LGBTQ2+ community. We are already fighting for our equality on many other fronts, specifically fewer barriers to health care and we don’t need labels to be used against us.
We’ve all seen the headlines and they are more alarming every day: Drug overdoses claimed more Michigan lives than traffic and firearm deaths combined; New estimates in drug epidemic where Fentanyl is a big culprit. These are variations on two news articles that recently caught my eye.
The first headline reads: “CDC report: In 2017, drug overdoses claimed more Michigan lives than traffic and firearm deaths combined.” The second reads: “Bleak New Estimates in Drug Epidemic: A Record 72,000 Overdose Deaths in 2017 Fentanyl is a big culprit, but there are also encouraging signs from states that have prioritized public health campaigns and addiction treatment.”
It’s important to specifically raise up the under-reporting of statistics for our LGTBQ2+ brothers and sisters who have been affected by this public health crisis and also the use of the word “epidemic.” As a reminder, opioids are a class of drugs that include the drug heroin as well as the prescription pain relievers oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl and others.
In any general population statistic, especially concerning alcohol and other drug misuse, the incidence rate is usually much higher for the LGBTQ2+ community. Especially regarding the current opioid public health crisis, our community is at higher risk due to a number of factors. First and foremost, trauma is a powerful, recurring reason why people turn to substance abuse, according to Maureen A. Keeting, a chemical dependency counselor at Kent State University. In a 2017 online article, she notes that 80 to 90 percent of addiction victims have a background in trauma.
Unfortunately, trauma isn’t uncommon for us LGBTQ2+ folks, due to violent attacks against us, family rejection, and housing insecurity or fear of job loss, since these civil rights are not protected under Michigan law. However, there is no proven, direct correlation to these and any other traumatic event and addiction.
The first article paints a bleak picture for Michigan in numbers: a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in 2017 drug overdoses were responsible for the deaths of 2,662 Michiganders, more than the number of traffic and firearm deaths combined. The overdose deaths represent an 82 percent increase over five years and an 8 percent jump from 2016. Unfortunately, when we take a deeper dive into these statistics, we learn that the largest portion of those struggling with opioid addiction are straight, white, suburban females.
However, studies do not accurately capture and reflect LGBTQ2+ addiction rates for a variety of reasons, mostly due to changing terms and labels and self-identity. For example, often times men identify as “straight” but have sexual relations with other men and would never describe themselves as “gay” or “bisexual” or “queer.” Hence, the national figures are important, but still do not accurately reflect our community. Those of us on the “front lines” of the public health crisis know first-hand the numbers and sub-groups afflicted, mostly gay white millennials and trans-men/women.
This is why I have issues with judgmental words and labels; especially when counseling an LGBTQ2+ individual. Our community and our rights are being threatened more every day, especially our access to health care, and we don’t need more labels used against us, like lifestyle choice, religious freedom, etc. While the term “epidemic” is accurate – Webster’s defines the word as “affecting or tending to affect a disproportionally large numbers of individuals within a population, community or region at the same time” – this word is laden with connotation and stigma; much like the words “addict,” “alcoholic” and “tweaker” are too.
Calling this a public health crisis more accurately describes the problem and is more inclusive of the individuals involved, namely those struggling with out-of-control behavior associated with either prescription or non-prescription drugs use. I also believe that a change to the current child-resist bottles in use today would greatly reduce these numbers across the board.
Before speaking about reducing health barriers currently facing our community, a recent bill introduced in the Michigan House that would require opioids and other highly addictive drugs be dispensed in locking prescription vials, is a good start to begin combating early drug use in teens, especially for our LGBTQ2+ teens. As the article states, each year 960,000 children nationwide, between the ages of 12 and 17 initiate prescription drug abuse and many children start in middle school. As many of us LGBTQ2+ adults struggled with our gender identity and sexual orientation as teens, statistically, most of us turned to some form of alcohol or drug use to help cope. As the numbers show, this leads to a higher risk factor of substance abuse in early adulthood according to the CDC.
This bill as a first step to help curb early drug abuse makes sense. We need to have more open and honest conversations regarding the drug abuse currently ravaging our community, specifically meth and heroine. If you are one who “parties and plays,” “is looking for Tina” or any other number of euphemisms for drug seeking; or are selling drugs; or don’t speak up when a drug sale goes down near you; or if you are a business owner that allows drug sales or drug use on your property … or any other number of scenarios we are all familiar with, then YOU are also contributing to the current public health crisis killing and destroying our community.
Let’s start a conversation about drug use and start with the person you love who is currently struggling with alcohol or other drug misuse. Let’s stop judging and labeling and begin supporting and offering help.