Gender-Affirming Gynecology

Mental health assessment for gender-diverse patients


Over the past several years, the number of patients seeking gender-affirming services has exponentially increased.1 Unfortunately, the number of patients presenting for treatment has exceeded evidence-based guidelines, research, and the number of providers familiar with gender-affirming care. Many institutions and associations such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) advocate for training of providers; however, many patients will be seen by providers who are not qualified in diagnosing gender dysphoria. As a result, many practitioners rely on the mental health evaluation of gender-diverse individuals prior to prescribing hormonal therapy or before planning surgery.

Practitioners qualified to provide mental health services can include persons within in the field of psychology, psychiatry, social work, licensed professional counseling, nursing, or family medicine (with specific training in mental health).2 WPATH also defines specific criteria as part of the mental health assessment. For example, providers should have a master’s degree or higher in clinical behavioral science, competence in using the DSM/ICD, the ability to recognize and diagnose coexisting mental health concerns, and undergo continuing education in the treatment of gender dysphoria.2 Unfortunately, the demand for gender-competent mental health professionals exceeds the number available, and many patients are seen by therapists lacking experience within this field.3 This discrepancy can present an additional barrier to the health needs of transgender patients and sometimes inhibit access to hormone therapy, or even more catastrophically, compromise their presurgical assessment and surgical outcome.

Dr. K. Ashley Brandt, an ob.gyn. and fellowship-trained gender affirming surgeon in West Reading, Pa

Dr. K. Ashley Brandt

For patients seeking chest surgery (mastectomy or breast augmentation), one letter from a mental health provider is necessary. If a patient is interested in pursuing genital surgery or the removal or reproductive organs, two letters from two separate mental health providers are required. Typically, one letter is from the patient’s primary therapist, and the other is often a second opinion. These letters must include a patient’s general characteristics, psychosocial assessment results, duration of the mental health professional’s relationship with the client, an explanation that the criteria for surgery have been met, a statement supporting the patient’s request for surgery and that informed consent was obtained, and a statement that the mental health professional is available for coordination of care.2 It is crucial to delineate that while a mental health evaluation is mandated, psychotherapy is not.

A therapist’s letter is not essential prior to initiating hormones; however, it is recommended if practitioners are unfamiliar with gender-diverse patients and current standards of care. If a provider such as a family physician, endocrinologist, or obstetrician/gynecologist is knowledgeable about the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria, they can prescribe hormones without a therapist’s letter. Additional considerations include establishing whether a patient has persistent gender dysphoria, has the capacity to give informed consent, and has “reasonably well-controlled” mental illness.3 The prevalence of both depression and anxiety is exceptionally high in this population, whereas rates of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia mirror that of the general population.3 Mental illness is not a contraindication to hormone therapy because there is sufficient evidence to support the benefits of gender-affirming hormones in reducing both anxiety and depression.

In contrast, concurrent severe psychiatric illness (i.e., bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder) that is not well controlled could prohibit patients from undergoing gender-affirming surgeries. Even the most well-educated patients do not truly understand the process of surgery and the rigorous postoperative care required, particularly after genital surgery. Many patients underestimate the need for a support system in the postoperative period and cannot predict their emotional response after undergoing such complex procedures. During a surgical consultation, the surgeon can help identify any mental, physical, monetary, or social constraints patients may have and work closely with other providers, including a well-trained mental health professional, to optimize a patient’s surgical recovery. Ideally, patients undergoing surgery are seen at multidisciplinary centers with the capabilities of addressing these concerns.

The patient’s perspective on the need for a therapist is often mixed. Historically, therapist letters have been viewed by patients as a form of “gatekeeping” and an additional barrier they are forced to overcome to receive treatment. However, the role of a mental health provider who specializes in gender-affirming care cannot be overstated. In the context of surgery, I often try to reframe the role the therapist as an integral part of the multidisciplinary team. Mental health assessments preoperatively can better prepare patients for their upcoming surgery. More importantly, this multidisciplinary approach can help identify potential issues with coping strategies or exacerbations of other mental health conditions that may arise in the immediate postoperative period.

There is no question that exceptional gender-affirming care requires a multidisciplinary approach. Establishing strong relationships between hormone prescribers, surgeons, and behavioral health specialists in an essential step toward providing competent patient-centered care.

Dr. Brandt is an ob.gyn. and fellowship-trained gender-affirming surgeon in West Reading, Pa.


1. Ettner R. Mental health evaluation for gender confirmation surgery. Clin Plastic Surg. 2018;45(3):307-11.

2. Karasic D. Mental health care for the adult transgender patient. In: Ferrando CA, ed. Comprehensive Care of the Transgender Patient. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2020:8-11.

3. World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Standards of care for the health of transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people. 7th ed. Minneapolis: WPATH; 2012.

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