Young people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are at increased risk of using substances such as alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana, according to a new study.

The study from researchers at Oregon State University also found that these teens are at a higher risk of using more than one substance, known as polysubstance use.

“This data shows definitively that polysubstance use is an issue among many youth who identify as sexual minorities, meaning they are facing added health risks,” said Dr. Sarah Dermody, an assistant professor at Oregon State University.

“But there are also differences among the subgroups of youth who identify as sexual minorities, suggesting we need to look beyond the averages to understand what factors may be influencing substance use in this population.”

Sexual minority is an umbrella term for those who identify with any sexual identity other than heterosexual or who report same-sex attraction or behavior. For the purposes of the study, the researchers focused on those youth who identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.

Among youth, alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine are the three most commonly used drugs. That is a concern because kids who use those substances are at risk of negative health and social outcomes, including addiction and poor cognitive, social and academic function, the researcher noted.

Recent research has shown that sexual minority youth reported nearly three times more substance use than heterosexual youth. The disparity may be due in part to stress from discrimination, violence, and victimization rooted in their sexual minority status, according to Dermody.

The goal of the new study was to better understand the risks associated with polysubstance use, or the use of three or more types of drugs, among sexual minority youth. It is an area of research that is largely unexamined, she said.

“The experiences of youth who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are underreported in research, generally,” she said. “In research we tend to focus on the averages. In this study, we’re trying to better understand the intersectionality of sexual orientation, race, and gender with substance use. Are some sexual minority youth at more risk than others for substance use?”

For the study, Dermody analyzed results from the Centers for Disease Control’s 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which monitors key health and risk behaviors among youth, including substance abuse.

The 2015 survey of more than 15,000 youth was the first wave of the survey to include a question about sexual identity, giving researchers new insight into how a youth’s sexual identity might impact substance use.

The data showed that there is a sizable number of youth, both heterosexual and sexual minority, who don’t use any substances at all, Dermody said.

But among those who do, she found that those identified as sexual minority youth were at higher risk of using each type of drug — alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes — compared to heterosexual youth. They are also at higher risk of polysubstance abuse overall, according to the study’s findings.

Within the sexual minority youth population, some groups were at more risk than others for using one, two, or all three substances. For example, bisexual youth faced the largest increase in risk of polysubstance abuse, as well as combinations of two substances, while those who identified as lesbian or gay were only at higher risk for some combinations, the study discovered.

“The findings suggest that it may be good practice for health care providers who serve these youth to do assessments for substance use as part of regular health screenings,” Dermody said.

She added that further research is needed to determine what factors may be contributing to increased substance use among youth identifying as sexual minorities, and why those factors may impact some more than others.

The study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Source: Oregon State University