One study discovered around one-third of men who have sex with men (MSM) reported their substance use or binge alcohol use had increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. Another survey of LGBTQ university students in the United States conducted by the University of Maryland Prevention Research Center revealed 32% were consuming more alcohol since the coronavirus outbreak. Comparatively population alcohol use had increased by 14%.
LGBTQ people face more challenges
The pandemic has caused many people to experience higher anxiety, boredom and stress. The LGBTQ community faces even more challenges such as increased stress from social prejudice and discriminatory laws, as well as family rejection due to their sexuality or gender identity. Combined, these effects could result in the use of substances as unhealthy method to cope. The disruption to their usual social connections is an added challenge.
Research indicates that certain sub-groups within the LGBTQ community are at even higher risk. For example, university students, with 46% of transgender female students and 35% of queer-identifying students reporting increased alcohol use since the start of COVID-19.
Young LGBTQ adults who are exploring their identity are also at high risk of trauma due to the breaking down of social connection during COVID-19 lockdown measures. A study published in the Emerging Adulthood journal found that after physical distancing guidelines went into effect, LGBTQ people aged 18 to 29 years had “lower levels of hope for the future, higher levels of alcohol use, a lower sense of connection to and pride regarding the LGBTQ community.”
We found that those that reported an increase in alcohol use were more likely to suffer from greater psychological distress compared to those that did not report an increase in alcohol use,” said John Salerno, a Ph.D. candidate in behavioral and community health at the University of Maryland, as per NBC News.John Salerno, a Ph.D. candidate, the University of Maryland
Some LGBTQ students have had to move out of their familiar and comfortable surroundings back home and isolate with families who are not accepting of their identity. This can add to the psychological pressure.
Disruption to social connection worsens the problem
The disruption to social connection faced by the LGBTQ community worsens alcohol and other drug use problems. Since the community often relies on each other for support, when that support is lost, their mental health suffers.
We’re already seeing higher levels of mental health challenges in the LGBT community being compounded with isolation,” said Dianna Sandoval, chief clinical officer of AspenRidge Recovery, a network of rehab centers that offers LGBTQ-specific addiction treatment, as per NBC News.
Because it’s so difficult for folks to connect even to the small communities they’ve built for themselves, due to social distancing, there’s an even greater distance between people in the LGBT community. Some people just don’t feel that same sense of connection over Zoom.”Dianna Sandoval, chief clinical officer, AspenRidge Recovery
Christian Cerna-Parker, CEO of the New York-based nonprofit Gay and Sober, reports increasingly younger people are reaching out to the organization since the pandemic hit.
What can be done?
Manny Minnie, a 36 year old now in recovery, has been using his experience during COVID-19 to help newcomers to 1,000 Hours Dry LGBTQIA, an Instagram community for queer people who are on a journey to sobriety or are “sober curious.”
While there are actions that can be taken at a personal level by checking up on friends and family who might be struggling and directing people to necessary help, the problem lies within alcohol itself.
Alcohol is an addictive substance and the alcohol industry, which produces and promotes alcohol use – even as coping tool during the public health crisis – must be regulated to better protect people, specifically vulnerable communities and society.
The existing alcohol policy in the US falls short in effectively addressing alcohol as the harmful and addictive commodity that it is. For example, even though excise taxes exist for alcohol, studies have proven they remain insufficient. A study from Boston University School of Public Health published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found inflation has reduced American alcohol tax rates by 70% since 1933. Despite this, in December 2019, the United States Congress further subsidized the alcohol industry by extending the major tax break to the industry, losing billions of dollars in government revenue.
The World Health Organization recommends population level alcohol policy solutions through the three Best Buy policy measures which limit availability, reduce affordability and regulate marketing of alcohol to reduce the harm from alcohol products. Moreover, the WHO SAFER package includes five high-impact strategies that can help governments to prevent and reduce alcohol harm and related health, social and economic consequences. The fast-growing largely unregulated alcohol delivery services specifically need urgent attention and regulation.
There is a necessity to improve early identification and brief interventions especially in primary care systems, specifically for at-risk groups to ensure that those who need support receive it. Investment in these services must be increased to meet the need.