Residents’ Corner

Transgender patients face mental health challenges


 

What I thought would be a typical morning at the major county hospital – if that were ever possible on a psychiatric emergency unit (EU) – quickly turned atypical when I encountered a patient whom I will call Olivia.

Olivia is a 51-year-old male-to-female transgender woman who has not yet undergone gender reassignment surgery. She was brought to the EU by police, after expressing suicidal ideation during a phone call with a tax accountant. This was Olivia’s third visit to the psychiatric emergency unit because of suicide threats within 2 months. Though she was chronically suicidal, her current visit was triggered by a tax audit, which led her to view herself as an unwanted burden on society.

Dr. Saeed Ahmed

Dr. Saeed Ahmed

This current crisis occurred within a framework of related chronic, unmitigated psychosocial and economic stressors, which were revealed from past history, such as the demands of parenting a 12-year-old autistic son with special needs, an unhappy marriage tied to her gender transition, and perhaps most significantly, her family’s rejection. She also spoke of a wide array of financial struggles, including her extensive medical expenses, and a feeling of insecurity about her disability benefits she was highly dependent upon to support her large immediate and extended family.

As a male-to-female transgender woman, Olivia faced discrimination in various aspects of her life. Despite her professional competence as an accountant, she was unable to find an employer accepting of her transgender status. Her efforts to align her legal identity with her experienced gender by legally changing her name were met by a web of bureaucratic complications. In the face of numerous challenges, Olivia had minimal social support to rely on during her gender-affirming transition. In short, nothing – not work, family, or finances – was simple for Olivia.

Olivia’s case is not atypical. My purpose in describing Olivia’s circumstances is to highlight the issues faced by many transgender men and women in every aspect of their day-to-day lives. To protect her identity, I have been careful to change several specifics related to her case.

Historical perspective

Societal views of transgendered people vary. On one end of the spectrum is acceptance; in the middle is perhaps tolerance or mild discomfort at perceived abnormality; and at the other extreme are virulent hatred, discrimination, and invalidation of these individuals’ gender-affirming efforts.

Awareness of these hostile attitudes creates a vicious cycle of marginalization and mental illness among many transgender individuals.

Controversies surrounding sexual minorities are rooted in societal perceptions of gender delineations, and prevailing societal norms surrounding ethical and moral conduct. Most societies have a narrow perspective on gender, and seek to maintain a strict delineation of male and female identities, which contributes to the rejection of those with gender identity issues.1,2 This often results in the invalidation of or active opposition to transgender individuals’ transition efforts. The reasons behind the rejection of transgender men and women are multifactorial, and can include a lack of awareness, homophobia, religious dogma, social stigmatization, and perceived non-employability – all often stemming largely from the lack of awareness that sexual identity and orientation are not a choice, but rather are predetermined by biological mechanisms. The intensifying familial, societal, political, and financial pressures all contribute to increased mental health issues, including increased incidence of suicide among sexual minorities.

Globally, sexual minorities continue to be subjected to gross human rights violations. Against the backdrop of prevalent social discrimination, transgender people experience a roughly threefold increase in the risk of developing anxiety disorders, which impair self-esteem and interpersonal functioning.3 The lifetime risk of attempted suicide is four times higher among transgender men, and two times higher among transgender women, than it is among cisgender men and women, respectively. Institutional discrimination in the public and private sectors results from laws and policies that impose inequities, or fail to protect sexual minorities. Examples are current policies denying medical coverage for sex reassignment surgery, denying health care by a provider because of transgender identity and numerous obstacles to obtain health insurance coverage.4

Impact of low acceptance

Recall Olivia’s need to delay the vocal cord surgery that arguably would have had a positive impact on her self-esteem. The transgender population faces increased health risks and barriers to appropriate mental health evaluation and inclusive care, particularly individuals with low acceptance from family, friends, and partners.5

A century ago, changing one’s gender was considered both highly disreputable and an impossible feat.6 Today, sex reassignment is the focus of political debate, with activists seeking equal rights for transgender individuals, despite the high rate of mental disorders in the community. While there is some positive public perception of transgender people, most still hold religious or moral objections to sex reassignment. Olivia’s family, for example, is typical in their rejection of her gender-affirming efforts. One example of this rejection is forbidding her to wear women’s clothing, stating that it makes them feel ashamed and subjects them to social ridicule.

As a result, Olivia lacks the social support that could work to remedy, to some extent, her suicidal ideation. Efforts to alleviate financial burdens that result from workplace discrimination, impediments to the pursuit of health, security, and happiness and the bureaucratic hurdles to gender affirmation are needed.7,8 According to research by Kristen Clements-Nolle, PhD, MPH, and her associates, suicidality may be largely a reaction to the absence of legally secure equal rights for transgender men and women.9 In Olivia’s case, financial struggles with her mortgage, medical expenses for her autistic son, and anxiety about potentially losing the disability benefits on which she depends have added to her insecurity.

Financial insecurity resulting from her unemployment likely has exacerbated her feelings of inadequacy and depression. For example, because of her lack of financial resources, she had to delay the vocal cord surgery she desired. What would her prognosis be if her legal rights, including employment protection, were firmly in place? Likewise, the demands of parenting an autistic son posed another significant stressor that likely contributes to reciprocal stress for the child, resulting in the worsening of his autism symptoms.

In summary, transgender individuals face bias and discrimination in response to their gender-affirming efforts, which creates a vicious cycle of mental illness, suicidality, and societal marginalization. Addressing these endemic issues requires a multifaceted approach. Preventive strategies, including identification of mental health issues, and integration of mental health service with primary health care, are needed. Case registration, as a research measure to help understand the prevalence and severity of suicide among the LGBT population, would be beneficial.

Monitoring and follow-up of identified cases for supportive care (for example, gatekeeper training similar to the World Health Organization’s Suicide Prevention Initiative) also are needed to identify protective factors, in order to foster resilience in LGBT individuals facing negative reactions to disclosure of their sexual minority status. Legislation aimed at better facilitating a seamless integration of transgender men and women into mainstream society also is necessary. Supportive measures, particularly social supports promoting better mental health in trans individuals, could help reduce suicide rates. Finally, governmental initiatives to protect the human and constitutional rights of transgender people are key to minimizing the incidence of mental health issues and suicides among this vulnerable sexual minority group.

The path to addressing the issues faced by transgender individuals begins with education, which then leads to understanding. From understanding comes acceptance. Acceptance leads to equality – social, legal, and thereby, economic. Ensuring acceptance of all sexes as equal could mitigate the marginalization – in all its forms – experienced by gender-affirming individuals, with the end result being less mental illness and reduced rates of suicidality in this vulnerable population.7

Dr. Ahmed is a second-year resident in the department of psychiatry at the Nassau University Medical Center, East Meadow, New York. His interests include public social psychiatry, health care policy, health disparities, mental health stigma, and addiction psychiatry. Dr. Ahmed is a member of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology, and the American Association for Social Psychiatry.

References

1. LGBT Health. 2014 Jun;1(2):98-106.

2. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 2006;32(1):83-111.

3. Int J Transgenderism. 2016:18(1):16-26.

4. Am J Public Health. 2014 Mar;104(3):e31-8.

5. Int J Transgenderism. 2017;18(1):104-18.

6. “Suicide attempts among transgender and gender non-conforming adults,” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2014.

7. “Injustice at every turn: A report of the national transgender discrimination survey,” National Center for Transgender Equality, 2011.

8. J Gay Lesbian Soc Serv. 2014;26(2):186-206.

9. J Homosex. 2006;51(3):53-69.

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