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Tracking queer addictions

Coke use up but alcoholism is most prevalent

PROBLEM IN COMMON. According to Rainbow Services' Jim Cullen queer women tend to struggle with alcohol while queer men are more likely to struggle with alcohol, cocaine and other drugs. Credit: (Ablestock)

Cocaine use has increased among Toronto queers while the use of crystal meth is lower than generally believed, says Jim Cullen, clinic head and manager at the Rainbow Services program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

“What we have seen is a spike in cocaine use,” says Cullen. “The number of clients who are presenting with cocaine as a primary or secondary problem has risen about 30 to 40 percent in our figures. Now that’s considerable.”

But booze is the most widely abused substance in Cullen’s experience.

“Ninety percent of our clients suffer from alcohol abuse,” he says. “Crystal meth is a problem, but it is not a pervasive problem like the media has sometimes portrayed it as being. I’m not diminishing how serious it is because it can be really devastating to the individual and it’s something that needs attention.

“But alcohol — not to mention cigarettes, drugs that the government allows to be sold — while socially acceptable and its problems minimized, is quite frankly something far more devastating in terms of costs of lives in the community and cost to the healthcare system.”

In addition to increased rates of coke use Cullen says Rainbow Services is also seeing more patients with concurrent disorders than ever before.

“Seventy-two to 75 percent of our clients are patients with concurrent disorders, which are a mental health concern coupled with substance abuse,” he says. “That could be an anxiety disorder, depressive disorder or post-traumatic stress. A lot of research shows that [concurrent disorders are] a preexisting mental health concern that has been masked over the years and substance abuse came into the picture as a means to cope with those concerns.”

Rainbow Services, which provides support, counselling and education to queers dealing with drug or alcohol dependence, offers support for both sides of a concurrent disorder, says Cullen.

“Rainbow Services has psychiatry attached to the program to help address the issues that people with concurrent disorders have been dealing with so we’re not just focusing on the addiction but also on the mental health concern as well,” he says. “We’re the only program of its kind in Canada and because of that; we get referrals from across the country and, once in a while, the US.”

Cullen says while an addiction may be treated on its own, if the underlying mental health concern isn’t dealt with the patient may relapse and the addiction may return. Stressors including discrimination and homophobia, alienation from family and friends and social isolation can make treatment more of a challenge for queers.

He adds that we all have a role to play in helping those dealing with substance addiction.

“A significant portion of our community struggles with addiction and we have to learn not to glamorize it or denigrate the people who are struggling,” he says. “Many people can use in a responsible manner but many, many more struggle and our community has a responsibility to help those people.”

Later this month Rainbow Services will move from its current location at 33 Russell St to new CAMH buildings at Queen and Ossington, bringing inpatient and outpatient services under one roof. The new space will also offer clients in the residential services individual rooms. All the services are covered by OHIP.