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Study sheds light on treating gay addicts

Research: Services should be tailored to group's special needs


by: COURTESY OF DAVE UNITAN - Traditional group therapy isn't working well for gay addicts, according to a study co-authored by Buster Ross of the Hazelden Springbrook treatment center in Newberg, center in glasses. The study found sexual minorities on average have more failed addiction therapies than other inpatient patients.Gay men and women in addiction treatment are three times more likely than heterosexuals to have suffered sexual abuse and are twice as likely to have reported physical and emotional abuse, according to a new study by researchers at the Hazelden Springbrook residential alcohol and drug treatment center in Newberg.

In addition, according to the study of 258 Hazelden clients, gay addicts are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders and nearly three times more likely to have been admitted to detox and to have multiple inpatient addiction treatments.

The study, set to be published in the August Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, fills what co-author Buster Ross calls “a massive gap” in data on gays and addiction treatment. According to Ross, most studies until now focused on clients of community addiction treatment programs who were receiving outpatient services.

Hazelden’s clients, in contrast, pay upward of $10,000 a month for inpatient addiction treatment. Hazelden offers addiction therapy programs tailored for gays, which provided a five-year client base of 115 gays and 143 heterosexuals for the study. The gay clients had histories of more severe mental health and addiction problems in every category studied, according to Ross.

Prior to admission to Springbrook gays had on average 1.54 previous detox experiences, compared with 0.65 for heterosexuals. Gays reported 2.08 previous inpatient treatments on average, compared to 1.32 for heterosexuals.

“It means treatments are not working as well for gay and lesbian people,” Ross says.

Kate McNulty, a long-time private practice therapist in Southwest Portland, says about a quarter of her patients historically have come from the gay community. She isn’t surprised by the Hazelden study’s findings showing higher rates of addiction treatment and treatment failure among gays.

McNulty says liquor companies years ago figured out where gays gathered, and how that could be used in advertising.

“Bars have been the safest public space for gays to socialize for many decades and that’s the place marketing gets targeted,” she says. “It’s very deliberate and very obvious.”

Gay pride events and gay periodicals consistently intertwine messages about drinking and being gay, McNulty says. And, she adds, many gays feel addiction treatment doesn’t quite fit them.

“It’s not unusual for gay people to go to an outpatient therapist and the therapist is asking things like, ‘Who’s your husband?’ or ‘Tell me about your relationships.’ There is language used that assumes they are heterosexual,” McNulty says.

A double life

Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare’s Triangle Project provides addiction services specifically for the Portland area’s gay community. About a third of the project’s clients suffer from co-occurring psychiatric disorders, according to Emma Nichols, an addiction counselor who coordinates the program.

“For those individuals who are really struggling to find self worth in an environment where they haven’t, its easy to mask those feelings,” Nichols says.

The Triangle Project originally was developed to help sexually active gay men find treatment for methamphetamine addiction. About 10 years ago, meth use among gay and bisexual men reached near epidemic proportions as meth gained a reputation for increasing libido and diminishing sexual inhibition.

The Triangle Project operates on the theory that gays will benefit from outpatient addiction treatment separate from heterosexuals. All of the project’s counselors are gay.

“It’s very powerful being around people who validate who we are and who you don’t have to explain things to and who often share a common history,” Nichols says. “It’s very empowering to know you’re not alone.”

Springbrook’s Ross says inpatient addiction programs will have to adjust their curricula for gays if they want to achieve higher success rates with them. He says programs that send the message that sexual orientation is not an issue during addiction treatment are not sufficient. And he says programs that separate out gays and treat them as a group with special issues may not be ideal. Ross says neither option recreates the stress gays feel in mixed social situations, which might be necessary if they are to learn to deal with their vulnerabilities in the outside world without turning to drugs and alcohol.

“It’s unacceptable for gay and lesbian people to be in treatment and say, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal out of being gay, let’s focus on addiction,’” Ross says. “If you learn how to keep the secret of being gay, you learn how to keep the secret of alcoholism. You’re leading a double life.”