4 min

Addictions support tailored to queers

Prism can help

Since I work in addictions, people sometimes assume that I’m going to be judgmental and repeat some simplistic old tripe like “Just say ‘no’ to drugs.”
But life is more complicated than that.
Frankly, people drink and use drugs for lots of reasons. Most people do this in a way that’s beneficial or at least neutral, like having a glass of red wine a day. It can be fun or relaxing or an avenue to creativity or spirituality or to expressing sexuality in a different way.
Or, sometimes, having a few drinks may be the way we get through a tough time.  
But also, obviously, a particular way of using alcohol or drugs can be a problem.  For instance, drinking and driving, or getting high and having risky sex because your decision-making is impaired.
That doesn’t mean that, by definition, people who occasionally make risky choices have a problem with alcohol or drugs. But they may still want help in changing their behaviour and making healthier choices. After all, occasional risky choices can still have severe consequences, like car accidents or contracting HIV.  
Plus, people who have a lot of problems with substance use sometimes lose their friends, lovers, jobs, homes, self-esteem or physical health.  
On the other hand, a number of queer and trans folks have told me that sometimes using drugs — even if it’s having a huge negative impact in their life — still works for them because it keeps them on the planet. It’s the only alternative they can see to suicide. 
These challenges are not unique to queer and trans people. They exist across cultures and across histories. 
What I’m really interested in are the things that are specific to our lives and communities.
We know that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia affect our well-being. We know that we have significantly more problems with alcohol and drugs than straight people do because of the impacts of homophobia and transphobia.
There’s a theory out there, one that makes a lot of sense to me, that folks who are queer, trans, two-spirited or questioning, experience “minority stress.” That is, straight people’s — and society’s — responses to our sexual orientation or gender identity is a chronic stressor for us. And, for some of us, this intersects with racism, or with sexism, or the way people respond to visible disabilities, or that we’re poor…
It should come as no surprise then that we have higher rates of stress-related mental health problems, like depression and anxiety. Using alcohol and drugs can be a really effective way of coping with these stressors. It can be self-medication.
But I think we, as people in queer and trans communities, deserve more than this — more than just coping — in our lives. The challenge is: how are we going to get there? 
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a queer woman who told me she’s struggling with drugs. She told me that one of the most difficult things was the lack of hope.
She didn’t know where to go for help, where she’d be treated with respect by counsellors who would know enough about the issues she’s dealing with in her life. Things like sexuality and the impacts of rejection and traumatic experiences she’s had because of being queer.  
She got in touch with me because she’d heard about Prism Alcohol & Drug Services. Prism’s existence gave her hope that she could find some of the support she’s seeking from a counsellor who is not just queer-friendly but comfortable talking about sexuality and knowledgeable about queer cultures and the impact of homophobia and transphobia.
She was relieved to hear that she could work on her own goals, whether that’s to quit or just cut back. And even more relieved to hear the counselling is free!
That’s exactly why Prism was developed.  
In 1997 a group of queer, trans and two-spirited folks in Vancouver identified problems with substance use as one of their top health concerns. From 2000 to 2003, an LGBT Substance Use Working Group came together and organized a series of community consultations.
The folks we spoke with told us what supports and services they’d like to see. They also told us about barriers and tough experiences they’ve had. They told us that people are very reluctant to go someplace they don’t know is, at a minimum, queer-friendly.
People asked for free, specialized addiction counselling for our communities. People also wanted to know that if they didn’t want to go for counselling that’s identified as queer-focused, they could get competent counselling no matter where they went.  
Vancouver Coastal Health responded to these consultations by launching Prism.
For the last two years, queer, trans and two-spirited people have been able to go for individual, couple or family counselling, or to specialized groups. This is big news, and really exciting — Prism is only the second program in Canada to offer services like this tailored to our communities!
Prism’s counsellors see our strengths as queer and trans people. They help us see how we can make the changes we want to make in our alcohol and drug use, or in other addictions.

As individuals, we gain self-knowledge as we come to understand our desires and attractions and our gender identity. We find the courage to come out to ourselves and to others. Wouldn’t it be great to work with a counsellor who deeply gets the power in that? Prism can help. Call us if you need a hand.