Psychotherapist Owen O’ Kane on how LGBTQ+ people may be more likely to experience issues with addiction
Our wellness series with psychotherapist Owen O’Kane
It’s impossible to quote exact figures to show how many people in the UK have addiction problems. But we do know that LGBTQ+ people are significantly more likely to present with this and other mental health issues.
There are several reasons for this including: discrimination, shame, homophobia, internalised homophobia, rejection, and lack of support. Despite advances in equality for LGBTQ+ communities in some parts of the world, it is well documented that we remain a minority — and a vulnerable one at that. Recent reports on increased violence towards the trans community highlight how serious the problem is.
Embracing difference remains a real challenge for some people from socially normative backgrounds, but also within our own community. We are not as united as we should be and that is isolating many of us.
As a gay psychotherapist, I am interested in the part emotions play in addiction.
I think there is a danger that their contributory role can get lost in a sea of other theories, political correctness and normalising of destructive behaviours.
In my view, LGBTQ+ people fundamentally struggle because many haven’t found life easy and sometimes that hurts. In a world in which many in our community have experienced more than average judgement, shaming, humiliation and a reinforced sense of being ‘less than’, it is understandable that some will try to numb this pain — by turning to alcohol, drugs, sex, chemsex, food, gambling, shopping and even exercise.
Although some people can manage this sensibly, for many it becomes addictive. Put simply, the person finds themselves unable to control the compulsive urge for more. Often this has damaging consequences that leads to a state of being comfortably numb, where nothing is experienced or felt fully any more.
If any of what I am writing about here resonates with you, it’s worth remembering that this does not mean anything is wrong with you; it’s a focus on what has happened to you and why you might struggle. Overcoming addiction is possible and there are many support networks out there who can help. But for long-term recovery, you shouldn’t ignore the root emotional causes of your struggles.
Whatever is going on in your life, remember that this is not a permanent state. Although it might feel comfortable to numb the difficult emotions, think how incredible you could feel when you acknowledge these and take steps to work through them.
I’m naturally an advocate of therapy for doing the foundation work, but I offer a note of caution. Find a therapist who has experience and understanding of the needs of LGBTQ+ people. I have worked with several clients who have worked with therapists who wanted to explore healing or potential cures. Run a mile if you encounter any attempts at conversion therapy. This is psychologically damaging and unethical. Many LGBTQ+ people prefer a therapist who identifies from our community, and some of the research supports this strongly. Personally, I think finding the right therapist for you is the most important factor.
When you find the courage to face your emotions, everything changes. I have worked with countless LGBTQ+ people to help them deal with the uncomfortable feelings that had kept them stuck. This path is your route to power and regaining a sense of control. It won’t be easy at first, but you will get there.
“Find a therapist who has experience of the needs of LGBTQ+ people”
Owen O’Kane is a psychotherapist and best-selling author