With Pride month behind us, I thought it’d be valuable to highlight some of the unique set of issues LGBTQ+ people experience while seeking recovery from substance addiction.

According to the National Institute of Health (NIH)

  • LGBTQ+ young adults and adults have increased patterns of substance use and misuse than their heterosexual peers.  
  • Only 7.4% of addiction treatment programs offer specialized services for LGBTQ+ patients.  
  • LGBTQ+ with substance addiction are more likely to have additional co-occurring mental health disorders.

It wasn’t too long ago that those working in the recovery field weren’t systemically culturally competent to help LGBTQ+ people as it related to privacy, gender, and sexual orientation, interwoven with someone’s substance addiction and any other co-occurring mental health or medical issues.  And, while we’ve made progress, we still have a ways to go when it comes to helping LGBTQ+ people seeking recovery.  Although I’ve been an out gay man and sober since the age of 19 in 1988, when I attended a conference recently addressing current LGBTQ+ issues in the recovery space, I was surprised to learn I was not fully informed of the current number of issues surrounding gender pronouns, as well as how people identify, as I thought I’d been. 

While there are established and successful approaches available for those seeking treatment and other resources for substance addiction, in order for an LGBTQ+ person to feel understood, respected, represented and valued, taking the time to become culturally competent in this area is a vital step to establishing a strong rapport with them.  During my 34-years of working with LGBTQ+ communities seeking recovery, I continue to hear about a lack of understanding from well-intentioned professionals seeking to help them with specific LGBTQ+ issues. Oftentimes, these experiences only inhibited these individuals’ ability to trust and be open to the crucial help they needed in early recovery.  In contrast, when counselors, therapists or other helpers have taken the time to become culturally competent with LGBTQ+ issues, I’ve received feedback about how refreshing and rewarding the experience can be for LGBTQ+ individuals.  

Ultimately, the best approach to this work is a questioning approach. For instance, asking how members of this community want to be identified as it relates to being LGBTQ+, rather than making assumptions around their identity and pronouns.

When looking for substance addiction treatment or other recovery support and housing, it’s important to be conscious of the following inclusions:

  • A unified approach between staff, volunteers and clients/residents that enables them to focus on the common purpose of seeking a recovery solution from substance addiction, rather than letting their differences (i.e., gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, age, etc.) get in the way of establishing the connections and community they desperately need to succeed.
  • Staff and volunteers who are trauma informed in their approach (i.e. following principles that include safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment) and trained to be culturally competent to the challenges LGBTQ+ clients/residents bring to their recovery process – regardless of lived staff and/or volunteer experiences.
  • Staff and volunteers who are capable of fostering an open dialog about diverse cultures within their recovery living environment (i.e. if inpatient and/or a residential setting), groups, with peer mentors and individual sessions.  Cultural biases are a norm in recovery settings, however the goal is to avoid labeling, assumptions, opinions and judgments and to keep an open-mind when it comes to accepting differing perspectives, expressions and orientations.
  • An environment that is a safe container for all clients/residents, creating a sanctuary from the stigmas of the outside world.  This should be a philosophy that is considered sacred by all.

We all have trauma and those with substance addiction typically have significant trauma histories they bring into recovery.  Growing up and into their adult lives, LGBTQ+ people often face tremendous stigma, bullying, physical violence, and histories of sexual abuse – all of which they bring into their substance addiction recovery.  It is vital that we keep this top of mind as we continue to do the work necessary to demonstrate to LGBTQ+ people seeking a recovery solution that they are loved, and deserve the same quality of recovery services available to any population. And, lastly, that when they finally land in a recovery environment that they are seen and accepted.

As a society, and especially within a helping profession and community like those seeking recovery from substance addiction, we have a long way to go when it comes to treating people who don’t look or act like us with respect, compassion, love and forgiveness – but it is a great place to start.


  • David vandervelde

    Executive Director and Co-Founder

    Awakening Recovery

    David got clean and sober in 1988 at the age of 19, close to death from his own struggles with drug addiction and alcoholism. Now 35+ years clean and sober, he has been consistently active in his recovery community by mentoring others, serving on recovery and youth related non-profit Boards such as LifeWorks and the West Hollywood Recovery Center, and serving on panels at institutions speaking from his own experience about recovery.   In 2015, David chose to transition from a 25-year career in producing large-scale corporate events for the sports, entertainment and non-profit sectors, to co-founding Awakening Recovery, non-profit a sober living in Los Angeles, as its Executive Director and Board member, helping those looking for a long-term recovery solution regardless of access to funds.  Additionally, David has successfully completed his Certificate in Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counseling from UCLA.  He now devotes his personal and professional life to helping those that need it the most find a long-term recovery solution from chronic and acute drug addiction and alcoholism through the life-saving work at Awakening Recovery and in his recovery community at large.