Does the WSW population have a higher rate of substance abuse than the general population?
This is an excellent question and one that needs more research to accurately answer. However, it is believed that women of sexual minority do,in fact, have a higher rate of substance abuse than the general population.
Higher substance abuse rates among sexual minority women makes sense given the social stigma, marginalization, and discrimination of the population in our society.
This, in addition to internalized homophobia, the stress of coming out, and mental health issues such as depression, may all contribute to higher rates of substance abuse. "Minority stress" is a term that is sometimes used to describe the whole-person stress that a minority person may experience.
However, as stated earlier, the research on the actual percentages of WSW and substance abuse compared with the general population is inadequate. First of all, some of the early research gathered data from women in bars (Dean, et al, 2000), so it wasn't surprising that women who were recruited in those studies had a higher substance abuse rate than the general population.
Even after these early studies, it is continued to be believed that WSW have higher substance abuse than heterosexual women.
The Pride Institute also confirms that women of sexual minority haven't been adequately researched for substance abuse but that it appears they have a higher rate of substance abuse than compared to the heterosexual population. It also appears that LGBT youth are an an even increased risk to suffer from substance abuse, especially when they are also homeless.
I believe it's safe to say the exact numbers and increased proportion of risk is not determined or well understood. However, progress is being made. A brief published this year by the Center for American Progress states, "It is estimated that between 20 percent to 30 percent of gay and transgender people abuse substances, compared to about 9 percent of the general population." Keep in mind that this brief is describing the LGBT population as a whole: not specifically the WSW population. In this brief, 3 main reasons for increased substance abuse in the LGBT population is identified. Minority stress (as described above), a lack of appropriate or culturally competent health care services, and marketing by alcohol and tobacco industries aimed at the LGBT population.
Health care providers should screen all women of sexual minority for substance abuse.
It is also of benefit for providers to be aware of local support networks in the area to which they can refer patients. The following is a helpful guide for health care providers:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment – A Provider’s Introduction to Substance Abuse Treatment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Individuals.
The WSW population will be much better served by increased screening for substance abuse and assistance in treatment options.
As the Center for American Progress points out, however, the solution for higher rates of substance abuse is multi-factorial: "Substance-abuse treatment programs and services need to become fully culturally competent and able to effectively and appropriately serve gay and transgender people." It also states: "Laws that discriminate against gay and transgender people, as well as persistent antigay and antitransgender prejudice, need to be addressed head-on and dismantled."
The references in this post are hyperlinked within the text of the article, and those which are not are listed below:
Dean L, Meyer I, Robinson K, et al. (2000). Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender health: findings and concerns. J Gay Lesbian Med Assoc. 4(3):101-151.
Flemmer N, Doutrich D, Dekker L, & Rondeau D. (2012). Creating a safe and caring health care context for women who have sex with women. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners. 8(6): 464-481.