There are disproportionately high rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among transgender people in the United States. One familiar statistic shows that a startling 41 percent of trans people attempt to take their own life. This data has been used to undermine the gender transition process: Some foolish physicians have suggested that high rates of psychological issues imply that being transgender is destructive to mental health. Meanwhile, trans advocates have argued that mental anguish in the trans population is the result of environmental factors like discrimination, rejection, and harassment—and not the process of transition itself.
New research published in the medical journal Pediatrics corroborates that claim, suggesting that trans kids who are accepted by their communities do not experience disproportionately high rates of mental health issues. The study measured self-reported feelings of anxiety and depression in a given week among 73 transgender children between the ages of three and 12 years old. As NBC reported, "They found the transgender kids averaged an anxiety score of 50.1 on a National Institutes of Health scale—almost the same as the national norm of 50."
There is no question that disproportionate rates of mental health problems among trans people are due to stigma, discrimination, and hostility in our culture.
Dr. Stephen Russell is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin specializing in child development and the co-author on another recent study looking at the mental health of LGBT youth. In an interview with Broadly, he explained, "There is no question that disproportionate rates of mental health problems among trans people are due to stigma, discrimination, and hostility in our culture (transphobia)."
"Children look to their primary caregivers for nurturance and support," he continued. "True rejection is evolutionarily devastating." Dr. Russell says that in most species it is typically taboo to reject offspring, but something has occurred in our culture that has made it socially acceptable to reject transgender or LGB children.
According to Dr. Russell, we're just beginning to uncover the real, lasting impacts of discrimination on well-being and health. "We are seeing that even at a physiological level, discrimination may make people chronically physically and mentally stressed." Transgender kids today may be the first generation of trans youth to grow up with a heightened degree of cultural awareness around trans identity, as well as increased social acceptance. For the majority of trans people who did not grow up in an accepting environment, their coming-of-age process has often been mired in prejudice. It is important for these trans people to learn how to move beyond the trauma of rejection in formative years.
"Acknowledging those experiences is one important step (and the problem with discrimination is that it is usually stigmatized – we often find it too painful to talk about)," Dr. Russell said, adding that in his research he's observed that "people who are the victims of harassment and discrimination often feel like a burden to the people who matter the most—even when they are supportive. They often feel that they are 'bringing them down' because of their (often chronic) harassment or negative experiences." It's important for these kids to understand, he said, "that they aren't a burden to us—that we are angry because we love them and care for them, not because we'd be better off without them."
People who are the victims of harassment and discrimination often feel like a burden to the people who matter the most.
To the parents of transgender kids, Dr. Russell said: "Love your child." That's obvious, he added, but for parents it may mean an internal overhaul of biases and beliefs. "Examine your feelings and assumptions and biases about gender: boys and girls, men and women, and what you imagine for your child in the future," Dr. Russell said, adding that parents should seek professional help if their feelings of discomfort are impacting their relationship with their child.
"Gender is a fundamental organizing principle of our society and culture and of growing up," Dr. Russell explained. "I think gender non-conforming kids need for adults in their lives to say that and to acknowledge that they are special and brave for expressing themselves in ways that will often challenge other people. That is, they need acknowledgement that they may find themselves 'going against the grain'—they need adults to acknowledge that and let them know that they support them and are proud of them because of, or despite, that."
Growing up as a transgender kid can be intensely isolating and frightening. If your family rejects you and your peers reject you, it is possible to develop negative ideas about yourself and your identity, and these damaging views can last a lifetime, leading the trans person away from life-sustaining resources. "Gender non-conforming/trans children whose parents regulate their gender are among those that have the hardest time emotionally," Dr. Russell said, leaving us with one last piece of advice: "Understand that gender is not just one thing. Just love your child for who your child is and will become."