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…LGBTQ youth are far more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to experience an array of social, physical and mental health challenges….There are far too many LGBTQ young people who don’t know where to turn for help, whether for guidance and support or for critical health services.

NYC Unity Project

According to the CDC, the emotional stress and economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to an increase in the misuse of substances and the U.S. has experienced the largest ever single-year increase in drug overdoses. Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer (LGBTQ+) community, as well as Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and underserved communities, were already at risk for increased substance misuse in response to stressors such as systemic and interpersonal discrimination. While it is important to recognize the resiliency of the LGBTQ + community, the fact that 70% of LGBTQ youth report their mental health to be “poor” during COVID-19, as cited in a recent study by The Trevor Project, must be taken as a call to action to help these young people.

The Fund for Public Health NYC (FPHNYC) has a long history of partnering with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to implement community-centered, creative strategies to address health disparities and decrease the misuse of substances. In addition to the ongoing work of getting life-saving methadone to those in need, in 2018 the Health Department launched The Coalition and Media Prevention (CAMP) Program with the goal of decreasing the disparity in substance use between LGBTQ+ youth and their straight and cisgender peers. FPHNYC is working hand in hand with our program partners at the Health Department on the administration and execution of CAMP.

Brooklyn YAS coalition bus ad
Bus shelter ad by CAMP partner Brooklyn YAS

CAMP funds community coalitions to change the environment where people live, work and play in order to reduce the availability and perceived availability of alcohol and other drugs. This strategy, called an environmental change strategy, includes working to change community norms and practices in a way that reduces not only acceptance of substances, but also the triggers that lead to the initiation of substance use and misuse by LGBTQ+ youth as a coping mechanism for trauma and stress.

Six coalitions are currently participating in the program: Ballroom, We Care; Brooklyn YAS (Brooklyn Youth Against Substance Misuse); The EYES Coalition (Engaging Youth Who Engage in Substances); LGBT Youth Safe Spaces; In Living Color; and TYSA (Tackling Youth Substance Abuse).

Each coalition began their involvement in CAMP by conducting community assessments, engaging with LGBTQ+ youth to understand the specific challenges and risk factors they face, and learning about the support systems and resources available to and needed by LGBTQ+ young people. Through the community assessments, each coalition found that LGBTQ+ youth experience more trauma, including family rejection and bullying, than non-LGBTQ+ youth. However, disparities are even greater for transgender and non-binary members of these communities.

“Transgender and non-binary people have less societal acceptance than their cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual peers,” says Kaity Lloyd-Styles, CAMP Program Manager. “Data collected by the coalitions found that transgender people are regularly mis-gendered and mis-named when seeking social services. As one young transgender person in the Ballroom We Care survey put it, ‘How am I supposed to get help when I don’t feel seen?’ That really is the goal of CAMP: to create societal change that leads to the acceptance and support of LGBTQ+ young people, thereby reducing the need to use substances to cope with trauma.”

Based on information gathered from the communities they serve, the CAMP coalitions have developed a variety of outreach campaigns and events to engage LGBTQ+ youth in substance-free activities. These include dance parties, game nights, LGBTQ+ Pride events, LGBTQ+ affirming visibility campaigns, formation of peer groups, as well as counseling and holistic care coordination for social services including but not limited to: healthcare, social services, foster care, and legal assistance. All aim to provide LGBTQ+ youth with the opportunity to connect to support systems and create community-level changes that reduce the amount of trauma experienced by members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Even when COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency, LGBTQ+ individuals, like many New Yorkers, may find themselves dealing with public health challenges such as food insecurity, mental health issues, structural racism, and violence in their communities. Programs such as CAMP and many others launched by the Health Department with support from FPHNYC lead to improved community health, wellbeing, and resiliency. Public and private investment and engagement in public health are essential to keeping New York City thriving today and into the future. Find out more and how to help.