Sexual Orientation Tied To Increased Risk Of Opioid Abuse

By Kelly Burch 11/27/18

A new study examined the link between sexual orientation and opioid abuse. 

gay pride parade where people discussed the tie between sexual orientation and opioid abuse

People who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual are more likely to misuse opioids, and bisexual women are at a particularly high risk, according to a study published this week. 

The study, published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine, found that bisexual women were about twice as likely to misuse opioids as members of the general population who identify as heterosexual. 

Lead study author Dustin Duncan, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine, told The Washington Post that these findings are consistent with previous studies that have showed people who are not heterosexual have poorer health overall. 

“I think the findings speak to the life experiences of people in society,” he said. “People who have less privilege and power generally have worse health. This isn’t a fluke or a one-time finding. It tends to be systematic.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 40,000 individuals who took the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an annual study conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In 2015, questions were introduced asking about sexual orientation for the first time, allowing researchers to see the connection between sexual orientation and substance abuse, particularly focused on prescription opioids.  

Joseph Palamar, an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University’s School of Medicine and another author of the study, said that he was surprised to see that bisexual women were most at risk for opioid abuse, since the opioid epidemic is usually associated with men. 

“Typically women are more protected against drug use,” he said. “It’s usually the men we worry about.”

Palamar theorized that bisexual woman might be more open to experimentation—both sexually and with drug use. However, Duncan pushed back on that idea, instead suggesting that the “minority stress model” can explain the increased risk factor for bisexual women. The minority stress model suggests that the stress of being a member of a minority group can contribute to negative health outcomes. 

Bisexual woman, he said, are minorities in many ways: they are female and not heterosexual, but they also do not fit in fully with members of the lesbian or gay communities. 

“These things together create further stress, less ability to cope and give rise to poor health,” Duncan said.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health does not include questions about gender identity, so researchers were not able to study any potential links between transgender or non-binary individuals and drug abuse. However, Duncan said that doctors can use the study to better serve people who are at increased risk of abusing opioids. 

“We need to continue documenting who is at risk,” he said. “This study is really the first step.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.