Study: Using chosen names reduces risk of suicide, depression in transgender youth

Sarah Seraj

The ability to use chosen or preferred names in a variety of contexts improves mental health of transgender youth, UT researchers have found.

Transgender people often have chosen names different from their birth name. In a study recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, a team of researchers led by UT found that the ability to use chosen names in different contexts such as at school, work and with family and friends reduces rates of depression and suicide. The study found that the more contexts in which transgender youth were able to use their chosen name, the lower the rate.

“If you could use your chosen name in just one additional context, the probability that you would engage in suicidal behavior will drop by half,” said Amanda Pollitt, postdoctoral fellow at the UT Population Research Center and researcher in the study.

Chosen names are particularly important for transgender people, because birth names can often be tied to a specific gender identity which they no longer identify with. Pollitt said that if an individual’s legal name does not coincide with their gender appearance but they are forced to use it in certain contexts, such as in the classroom, then they will inadvertently be identified by outsiders as transgender.

“They might identify as (transgender), but it takes away their agency of being able to decide whether or not to tell people that they are transgender,” Pollitt said.

The researchers surveyed 129 transgender youth aged 15 to 21 years from three different regions in the US. The participants were surveyed four times with follow-ups every nine months.

Despite the small sample size, it was the largest and most diverse sample of transgender youth to date, said Gu Li, postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia and researcher in the study. This reflects how difficult it is to recruit transgender people for studies.

Despite this challenge, it is important to continue studying the mental health of transgender youth, who, Pollitt said, experience higher risks for suicide and depression than their cisgender — or people who are not transgender — counterparts.

“Hopefully, more transgender people will participate in future studies so we are more aware of their needs and more aware of their development and what we can do for them,” Li said.

There are several barriers to accommodating chosen names in different environments such as schools or workplaces. Stephen Russell, chair of the human development and family sciences department at UT and researcher in the study, said one of the barriers is attitudes. Some people have negative or discriminatory attitudes toward transgender people and refuse to recognize a preferred name.

However, there are some less obvious barriers: data management problems. Some data systems at schools or workplaces simply don’t have a separate field for nicknames or preferred names.

“If you’re a kid and you’re at a school district where every classroom you go into, the teacher gets a printout and … everything that gets written about you is with a name that is not your name over and over again, all day long, every day. It undermines who you are,” Russell said.

Russell also stressed the importance of being supportive of parents as they get used to their child’s new name. While a child may be ready to cast off their birth name, it has a special meaning to parents, who may have spent months coming up with it during their birth.

“There’s some work to do … in supporting parents to understand that this is a really critical part of the social transition process for transgender youth and it’s not just a momentary phase,” Russell said.