A new study co-authored by Dr. Ralph Vetters, Medical Director of the Sidney Borum, Jr. Health Center, examines how family dynamics impact the mental health of transgender and gender non-conforming (TGN) youth. The study, titled Family Functioning and Mental Health of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Youth, is part of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Trans Teen and Family Narratives Project, a community-based research study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The study, like much of all existing research into transgender behavioral health, found that TGN youth experience high rates of depression, self-harming behavior, and suicidal ideation. Of those surveyed here, 40% of TGN youth reported a depressive disorder diagnosis and 61% exhibited a high number of depressive symptoms. The Minority Stress Theory suggests that someone who holds a stigmatized “minority status” in society, such as a TGN youth, may experience worse health outcomes than someone in the “majority.” This difference in health is due to experiencing societal prejudice and discrimination.
The researchers found that TGN youth who perceived better quality communication within the family and felt close to family members experienced less self-harm, fewer depressive symptoms, reduced anxiety, and better self-esteem and resiliency. The way parents and siblings perceived family functioning did not seem to be related to the mental health of TGN youth, suggesting that TGN youth may perceive their family communication and relationships differently than their family members do.
These results show that it is important for healthcare providers and researchers to talk to TGN youth about their experiences separately from other family members, as it is their perspectives that appear to matter most for their mental health. Family support on its own may not be strong enough to protect TGN youth from poor mental health outcomes.
Though the youth in the study had families that were supportive enough to participate in a study together, TGN youth still had substantial suicidality, depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Additional support from the community and society is needed, such as improved school policies against discrimination and bullying, and anti-discrimination laws to protect TGN youth and adults. Clinicians and other health care professionals have a vital role to play as advocates for TGN youth.
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