Study Reveals Failure Rate in Addiction Treatment for Gays

By Paul Gaita 08/04/14

While more traditional programs try to sweep an addict's orientation under the rug, more effective treatment targeted toward gay patients is available.

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Gays and lesbians are three times more likely to have multiple inpatient addiction treatments than heterosexual patients. That’s one of the findings in a new study that addresses issues of addiction treatment for LGBT patients, which is set to be published in the August edition of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services.

The study, written by researchers at the Hazelden Springbrook alcohol and dream treatment center in Newberg, Ore., also underscored the growing need for inpatient treatment programs to tailor their services to the sexual and social issues faced by many gay and lesbian patients.

According to the study, they are three times more likely to have suffered sexual abuse; twice as likely to have reported physical or emotional abuse; and are more likely to report struggling with issues of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric issues than heterosexual patients. Gay patients are also more likely to have multiple patient treatments prior to admission than heterosexuals. “[This] means that treatments are not working as well for gay and lesbian people,” said study co-author Buster Ross.

At the core of the problem is the language and focus of traditional treatment. “It’s not unusual for gay people to go to an outpatient therapist [who asks them] things like ‘Who’s your husband?’ or ‘Tell me about your previous relationships,’” said Portland-area therapist Kate McNulty. Programs that either cast no focus on sexual orientation or attempt to treat gay patients as a “special” group are also unlikely to have significant recovery rates.

“It’s unacceptable for gay and lesbian people to be in treatment and [for therapists to] say, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal out of being gay, let’s focus on addiction,'” added Ross. “If you learn how to keep the secret of being gay, you learn how to keep the secret of alcoholism.”

A solution may resemble the outpatient addiction treatment at Portland’s Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare’s Triangle Project. The project, originally developed to treat sexually active gay men for meth addiction, has expanded its services to provide addiction help specifically tailored to the area’s gay community. All of the project’s counselors are gay, which program coordinator Emma Nichols said provides a safe environment for gay patients.

“It’s very powerful being around people who validate who we are, and who you don’t have to explain things to,” she said. “It’s empowering to know that you’re not alone.”

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.