Stress, Coping, and Context: Examining Substance Use Among LGBTQ Young Adults With Probable Substance Use Disorders

Psychiatr Serv. 2020 Feb 1;71(2):112-120. doi: 10.1176/ Epub 2019 Oct 23.


Objective: The authors qualitatively examined how lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) young adults with probable substance use disorders conceptualized their substance use vis-à-vis their LGBTQ identities.

Methods: Individual, in-depth, semistructured interviews were conducted with 59 LGBTQ young adults (ages 21-34) who were participants in a larger longitudinal cohort study and who met criteria for a probable substance use disorder. Data were analyzed via iterative, thematic analytic processes.

Results: Participants' narratives highlighted processes related to minority stress that shape substance use, including proximal LGBTQ stressors (e.g., self-stigma and expectations of rejection) and distal LGBTQ stressors (e.g., interpersonal and structural discrimination) and associated coping. Participants also described sociocultural influences, including the ubiquitous availability of substances within LGBTQ social settings, as salient contributors to their substance use and development of substance use disorders. Participants who considered themselves transgender or other gender minorities, all of whom identified as sexual minorities, described unique stressors and coping at the intersection of their minority identities (e.g., coping with two identity development and disclosure periods), which shaped their substance use over time.

Conclusions: Multilevel minority stressors and associated coping via substance use in adolescence and young adulthood, coupled with LGBTQ-specific sociocultural influences, contribute to the development of substance use disorders among some LGBTQ young adults. Treatment providers should address clients' substance use vis-à-vis their LGBTQ identities and experiences with related stressors and sociocultural contexts and adopt culturally humble and LGBTQ-affirming treatment approaches. Efforts to support LGBTQ youths and young adults should focus on identifying ways of socializing outside of substance-saturated environments.

Keywords: Alcohol and drug abuse; LGBTQ community; Minority stress; Sexual and gender minorities; Substance use disorders; Young adults.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological*
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Qualitative Research
  • Sexual and Gender Minorities / psychology*
  • Stress, Psychological*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • United States
  • Young Adult