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Trans College Students Report Mental Health Challenges

Group Discussion

A recent study of 65,000 college students showed that transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students reported double to four times the number of mental health challenges as cisgender peers.

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The American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a report online by Sarah Ketchen Lipson, PhD, of Boston University School of Public Health, and her colleagues.

Symptoms reported include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-injury.

Multiple studies have already shown that the suicide risk for transgender people is extremely high, with up to forty percent attempting suicide whether or not they have had affirming surgeries or transitioned to their gender identity. In contrast, people with bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, conditions with a high suicide risk, are at around twenty percent.

This study was important because it examined a large population spanning more than seventy colleges, targeting a time when mental health issues surface for many. The study in general found high rates of depression, anxiety, and other concerns, which is consistent with many college studies as students are undergoing various stresses and transitions as they are newly independent, determine their futures and cement relationships.

Some drawbacks to the study were that self-reporters were ninety-eight percent white, which did not give a range of cultural and racial diversity for comparisons, and that self-reporting rather than clinical assessments can skew data—for example, a participant might report depression and anxiety symptoms that fit into a normal spectrum of experiences.

Regardless, the numbers still point to the tragic necessity of prioritizing mental health care for transgender people, and working towards an affirming society. For example, not having appropriate bathrooms for trans people to use has been linked with extreme anxiety and depression.

Study co-author Sara Abelson told MedPage News, “Gender minority students face a myriad of stressors in being a member of a stigmatized group, and we know these stressors activate psychological, behavioral, and physiological responses that can result in mental health vulnerabilities… For gender minority students, mental health inequalities are driven by stigma at the structural level—for example, discriminatory policies or a lack of trained mental health providers. Or at the interpersonal level—for example, family or peer rejection, harassment, bullying, internalized transphobia, or low self-esteem.”

Abelson feels there is too much emphasis in current and past studies on what individuals should do to improve their health or on what their symptoms are, but that this approach neglects the heartbreaking inequality and intense stress trans people face in everyday living.

She suggests that future studies might focus on how society can support transgender people and affirm human rights, providing an inclusive community instead of a transphobic one.

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