Transgender people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and addiction. And it’s really society’s fault, not theirs. A new study found that there’s a simple way to help transgender youth: Using the correct pronouns and their chosen names. It’s not exactly mindblowing that there’s a correlation between acknowledging someone’s humanity and their mental health, but the findings of this study out of The University of Texas at Austin could inform state and federal policies regarding transgender rights and protections, like allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms they want to use or easily amend their birth certificates so their ID cards match who they are. Our culture tells transgender people, and especially trans kids, that there’s something wrong with their gender identity in so many ways, and it usually starts with people refusing to just use a pronoun or name.
There’s really nothing for cisgender, heterosexual people to lose by listening to the transgender community and using given names or a different pronoun than they might have been used to. But it’s literally life or death for transgender kids. Just let that sink in the next time you hear someone make a joke about trans people “choosing” their gender identity.
Researchers interviewed transgender youths in three U.S. cities (one in the Northeast, the Southwest and on the West Coast) ages 15 to 21 years old and asked them if they were allowed to use their chosen name at school, home, work, and with friends. People who could use their name in all four areas experienced 71 percent fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34 percent decrease in suicidal thoughts, and 65 percent fewer suicide attempts.
Having even one context where a trans youth can use their chosen name and pronouns decreased their suicidal thoughts by 29 percent. So, if their parents won’t allow them to use their chosen name, having friends or a school policy that did allow them to could help. That’s taking the idea of a “safe space” to a whole new level when you consider the fact that transgender youth report having suicidal thoughts twice as often as their binary peers, and that one in three trans kids reports thinking about committing suicide.
Transgender kids and teens are about 1 percent of the entire population, so the research team worked with outreach and community organizations that work with LGBTQ youth to reach a diverse population. Stephen T. Russell, the lead author of the study, said that the sample was “remarkably ethnically and geographically diverse and diverse in terms of social class.” Basically, it doesn’t matter where they’re from or their demographic — using chosen names and pronouns helps transgender youth across the board.
Russell said in a press release accompanying the study, “I’ve been doing research on LGBT youth for almost 20 years now, and even I was surprised by how clear [the] link was.” He added, “We showed that the more contexts or settings where they were able to use their preferred name, the stronger their mental health was.”
This all correlates to other research done about transgender youth and adults. For example, the 2016 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 40 percent of the transgender population had considered suicide, compared to just 4.6 percent of the general population. That study also found that trans people are twice as likely to live in poverty, three times more likely to be unemployed, and 30 percent had been homeless at some point in their lives.
All of these situations can be linked to mental health — it’s hard to keep a job when you’re depressed.
It’s hard to not feel isolated and alone when family, friends, and teachers refuse to use your name. The survey found that when transgender people reported getting support from their family and friends when they came out, they were less likely to live in poverty, experience homelessness, and feel suicidal.
It seems like a no brainer, right? The more we let people argue about transgender bathrooms or debate about gender theory, the more we’re ignoring the fact that transgender youth (and adults) are isolated from their communities and families, and they’re suffering for it. In fact, the Trevor Project, an organization that supports LGBTQ youth, has reported an increase in calls to their crisis hotline in the wake of the debates about transgender bathroom bills and Trump’s tweets about banning transgender people from serving in the military. Trevor Project CEO and Executive Director Amit Paley said in a statement last summer:
No matter how marginalized you might feel, the transgender community is often the most ignored and most isolated. While trans representation in pop culture is getting a little better, it’s nowhere near what it could be. It takes nothing, and hurts no one, to listen to the transgender community, use their chosen names, and accept them. And it literally saves their lives. Why would you want to do anything different?