Transgender youth at higher risk for mental health issues

Eric Vela

In a study published this month, UT researchers found that transgender adolescents are twice as likely to have thoughts of suicide and are up to four times as likely to be involved in substance abuse when compared to the general population.

“Unfortunately, the findings were not surprising,” said co-author Stephen Russell, a Human Development and Family Sciences professor. “Any stigmatized group is likely to have mental health problems. A big chunk of the disparity comes from victimization and depression.”

The study found that 33.73 percent of transgender adolescents reported suicidal thoughts in a year, compared to the 18.85 percent of non-transgender students. Researchers also found that prevalence of substance use, including alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and other illicit drugs, was 2 1/2 to four times higher for transgender youth compared to non-transgender youth.

Sociology professor Gloria Gonzalez-Lopez, who specializes in gender and sexuality, said she is not surprised by these results.

“We live in a society that is transphobic,” Gonzalez-Lopez said. “There is so much pressure put on these kids to conform to these expectations. It must be incredibly painful for these children. So it isn’t surprising that they have suicidal thoughts or that they turn to substances to cope with it.”

The researchers took data from the Biennial Statewide California Student Survey of more than 25,000 California high school students between 2013 and 2015. Postdoctoral fellow Jack Day, co-author of the study, said they chose to use this data because the student population in California is diverse. Day said this study differs from similar ones because it uses a population-based sample.

“The biggest difference is that the other studies we have right now are community based samples, or they derive from online sources,” Day said. “They’re not necessarily representative of all youth, so it’s more difficult to generalize to a broader population. Our data helps expand what we already know. Because the student population in California is so diverse, we can expect to see the same pattern across the country.”

Day said schools can help combat the disparity.

“It’s likely that implementing and adopting more supportive policies that are inclusive of gender identity that also address vicimization issues in schools would be a good way to try to alleviate this,” Day said.