Improving Mental Health for Transgender People is a Challenge We All Must Address

Mar 31, 2021 11:00 AM

Author: Jessica Robnett, PsyD in the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Behavioral Health

March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility
March 31 is International Transgender Day of Visibility

Since 2009, March 31st has marked the occasion of International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event for celebrating people who are transgender and raising awareness of the challenges faced by the transgender community. 

 For several years now, it has been my privilege to work with transgender adolescents and young adults who are striving to navigate their lives and their identity. The primary goal at our clinic is to help people be themselves, live their lives, and be who they are. 

 Those challenges look different to every person who is struggling to match how they feel inside with what they see outside. Although we are moving toward a better world for transgender people, we still have a long way to go. 

A 2015 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality showed some shocking and dismaying statistics - 40% of respondents had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, nearly 10 times the national average.

The following four points are important to help shape the future for the transgender community.

  1. Transgender adolescents and adults need greater visibility and acceptance

Understanding the impact of families in the context of mental health is the central challenge of tackling the issues faced by transgender adolescents. Family support is critical, but many families can’t or won’t help in the ways transgender youth need.

An important tool to encourage acceptance in families is changing the way transgender people are seen and understood in society, which is why events like International Transgender Day of Visibility are so important. Affirming identities and using someone’s preferred name and pronouns is essential in places where youth look for support, including at home and in school.

Improving acceptance in schools is important because they are supposed to be safe places. A child with diabetes will find plenty of support and understanding from the adults in a school, but it’s a much more complex picture for a transgender child struggling with their mental health. Creating safe spaces such as bathrooms and changing rooms are small steps, but they can have a big impact on a teen’s school experience.

Adults have choices when finding communities where they can thrive--they can change their jobs or neighborhoods if they wish. Unfortunately, children don’t often have these same choices, which is why we must strive to improve how schools, families, and society accept and embrace everyone.

  1. The challenges faced by the transgender community are enormous

A 2015 study from the National Center for Transgender Equality opened many people’s eyes to the devastating effects of widespread stigma and discrimination on physical and mental health in the transgender community. Among the more shocking and dismaying statistics was that 40 percent of respondents had attempted suicide in their lifetimes, nearly 10 times the national average.

Rates of depression and anxiety are extraordinarily high within the LGBTQ community. A recent nationwide study of over 40,000 LGBTQ youth found that 68 percent of respondents felt symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder and 48 percent had engaged in self-harm in the past year, including 60 percent of transgender and non-binary youth.  

Homelessness is another concern for many transgender people, with one study estimating that 20 to 40 percent of homeless teens in the U.S. are transgender or gay. In my experience, this happens when youth are kicked out of their homes or feel unwelcome. Transgender teens also have much higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse than the general population, due to self-medicating as they struggle with not being accepted in their homes.

Any obstacle that youth face – economic, racial, cultural – is exaggerated for transgender youth, because all of their challenges compound. We are seeing awful, hard outcomes for people who feel constantly pressured to hide their identities. Choosing to be your true, authentic self is a challenging path.

  1. Everyone bears responsibility for achieving progress

The research is clear that family acceptance and support is critical for people in the LGBTQ community. Even having one trusting, affirming adult can lead to much better outcomes for transgender youth,  making a significant difference in their lives. 

Many people in Utah face additional challenges due to the dominant religious culture and people having a crisis of faith. Families can feel extreme pressure to make a choice--they feel strongly about protecting their child, but risk alienating extended families and communities.

We can all do a lot to change that culture. I advocate for using open and accepting language in our everyday lives. Even a simple change like asking: “Are you dating?” rather than; “Do you have a boyfriend?” doesn’t require people to correct you before answering. And it helps open the door to wider acceptance.

My challenge for everyone is also the simplest: listen to people and respect them. We are all imperfect people who mess up sometimes. Treating others with respect and care will go a long way toward improving the world for everyone.

  1. There are resources available to help

It’s important to understand there are people and places that can help if you have questions, challenges, need to talk to someone, or are feeling hopeless. 

In Utah we have some outstanding resources: Encircle is a great, safe space for LGBTQ youth, families and allies, with locations in Provo, Salt Lake City, and St. George. The Utah Pride Center is another great organization that offers the same help. Both also provide support groups for parents.

At the University Transgender Adolescent Medicine Program, where I work, we have tremendous medical professionals – including MDs, a psychologist, and a dietician– who provide life-changing physical and mental health support.

Safe UT is an app staffed by medical professionals that allows youth to text, chat, or call if they are experiencing a mental health crisis.  

Nationally, The Trevor Project is a wonderful advocacy group with many resources, including crisis counselors. 

A medical professional is always available to help if you have long bouts of depression or symptoms you just can’t shake. Contact Huntsman Mental Health Institute to get help or learn more, or reach out to these resources:

  • If you are feeling depressed, anxious, lonely or having a personal struggle and need someone to listen, call the Utah Warm Line at 801-587-1055. 
  • If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the statewide Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255.


mental health transgender