June was ‘Mental Health Awareness Month’ at my work. It was really interesting as lots of employees came forward and shared their experiences with mental health problems. It did get me thinking however, if perhaps people thought of being transgender as just a lifestyle choice, as they are often only really exposed to transgender issues through the mainstream media.
So I started jotting down some thoughts on gender identity and mental health…
Being transgender has been in the news quite a bit recently. I welcome this, and hopefully all the positive publicity will help the rest of us in some way as well. However, I do wonder if everyone who sees Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair realises that this is likely to be the culmination of years of identity issues and fighting all the potential mental health problems that can go alongside being trans.
Last year, a study by Pace (a mental health charity for LGBT people) found that 48% of trans people under 26 said they had attempted suicide, and 30% of these had done so in the past year*
I find this a truly shocking statistic
I don’t want to play top trumps with medical conditions, that’s not what this post is about. But being transgender clearly has a disproportionately high attempted suicide rate, and that’s something I think needs combating straight away.
The NHS** say gender dysphoria is “a condition where a person experiences discomfort or distress because there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity.” The problem I find with this discomfort and distress, is that the idea of trying to do anything about it often feels like it will make things worse.
In my experience, the discomfort I felt with what I was led to depression. This was made worse at the thought of actually trying to solve the problem. I couldn’t imagine going out in public, I’d be a laughing stock. I’d have to tell my family, my friends and my work about what I was and risk destroying relationships and alienating myself further.
With most medical conditions, I’d go straight to a doctor and say “please help me with this as it’ll make my life better”. But being trans felt like something I had to hide, as it had the power to make my life much worse.
Finally I got to the stage where I knew I needed to do something about the problem, whether it made things worse or not. The issue I then faced was that I had to wear it on the outside. The solution to my problem was to start to live life as a girl, but this meant exposing myself to the real world. People in the street could take offence at my existence and stare, make comments, or worse. Having really low confidence in how I looked made this step very difficult.
I’ve mentioned before about the long waiting list for medical help regarding any gender identity related problems. Back in 2013 my GP had no experience of transgender issues, so could only run through a basic mental health assessment before referring me to the specialists. Having spent months plucking up the courage to visit the GP, you are then left feeling very alone due to the huge waiting times for the gender clinic. Many people start to take matters into their own hands, by self-medicating hormones for example.
The good news is that I think things are gradually getting better. There is much more public awareness of transgender issues, and I’ve been relieved that most of my original fears were never realised. Pretty much everything that has held me back over the years has been all in my head. It’s so important however, that as a community and a wider society we are able to support people in these more vulnerable positions and let them know that they don’t have to hide who they are.