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Transgender Students Face Higher Rates of Substance Abuse, Study Finds

"When it comes to transgender teens, it’s the transphobia that impacts [their drug use], not being transgender," the study's lead author said.
Image: Girl with an ecstasy tablet on her tongue
Girl with an ecstasy tablet on her tongue, smiley faced pill, UK 2004.Eleanor Lindsay Finn(C)PYMCA / UIG via Getty Images

Transgender adolescents have higher rates of illicit and prescription drug use when compared to non-transgender adolescents, according to a new study.

The study, published in the Journal of School Health, found transgender students were 2.5 times more likely than non-transgender students to use cocaine and methamphetamines in their lifetime and twice as likely to report the misuse of prescription pain medication.

The findings were the result of a secondary analysis of the 2013-2015 California Health Kids Survey (CHKS) — a statewide survey of elementary, middle and high school students — that examined the recent, in-school and lifetime use of drugs and alcohol among 4,778 transgender and 630,200 non-transgender students.

Kris T. De Pedro, an assistant professor of educational studies at Chapman University and the study’s lead author, explained that gender identity is not the cause of increased substance abuse among transgender students, but rather, discrimination is.

"When it comes to transgender teens, it’s the transphobia that impacts [their drug use], not being transgender," De Pedro said.

"In order to reduce the likelihood of a kid to resort to drugs as a means to cope, there has to be some sort of social support mechanism," De Pedro continued. "We have these drug prevention programs in schools that are for everybody, but we really need to fill a fundamental need for [transgender] kids, and that’s the need to feel accepted and affirmed."

Related: Families With Transgender Kids Come Out of Shadows in Chile

Other local data on substance abuse among transgender teens fall in line with the CHKS report. In June, the New York City Health Department released a report that found transgender youth (21 percent) were three times more likely to misuse opioids compared with non-transgender youth in 2015 (7 percent).

The CHKS study also found transgender students were about 2.8 times as likely to report 30-day inhalant use — huffing common household products — and more than 3 times as likely to use cigarettes in school.

De Pedro and the study's other authors believe scientific literature on substance abuse by transgender teens remains in its "nascent stages," seeing a need for further research into abuse and neglect in the familial context.

Brian Altman, director of the Division of Policy Innovation at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), explained that family acceptance is "one key way" of supporting LGBTQ youth.

"Research has shown that LGBT youth and young adults whose parents support them show greater well-being, better general health, and significantly decreased risk for suicide, depression and substance abuse," Altman said.

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