By: Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP
If someone you know has shared that they are transgender or identify as transgender, you may already be aware that it took a great deal of courage to share this identity. Transgender people have faced thousands of years of persecution and judgment, but society is turning over new leaves in understanding these individuals and what it means to be transgender.
In June 2018, the World Health Organization announced that they will no longer classify transgender identity as a mental illness. For decades, a diagnosis known as gender incongruence or gender dysphoria has been accepted among medical professionals as a way to describe a strong desire to be rid of one’s physical sex characteristics or gender identity and to identify as non-gendered or differently gendered. This classification has made transgender people inaccurately fall under an umbrella of mental illness, even if the only solution to this “disorder” is to simply live under societally-constructed gender norms.1,2
As the label and stigma is lifted, transgender people across the world can continue living as fully realized human beings with the peace of mind that their gender identity, which is often present from early childhood, is just as much a part of them as their eye color. Those who are transgender and struggle with mental health diagnoses can now focus on the real issues, such as anxiety or depression, without having to “fix” their desired gender identity.
What Does It Mean to Be Transgender?
Transgender is a term that is often confusing to those who don’t have personal experience with it. Here are some helpful definitions about gender identity:
Sex: Sex is determined by genetics. Most people are identified as male or female at birth. Sex is determined by chromosomes, hormones and internal sex organs. Reassignment surgery involves changing the hormonal and physical aspects of a person’s physical sex.
Gender: Gender is a social construct. It is defined by a person’s society and how that society believes men, women and other genders should behave. Gender can also be an internal sense, defined by thoughts and emotions. A person’s gender identity can match their identified birth sex or it can differ from the birth sex. A person may maintain the outward gender expression of the gender that feels best for them.
Sexual Orientation: This is a term that describes what gender, if any, a person is attracted to. Transgender people may identify as straight, gay, lesbian, pansexual, bisexual, asexual or queer.
Transgender: Also known simply as “trans,” this is a term that covers a wide range of people who have a gender identity or gender expression that are different from their sex that was assigned at birth. Some people are prescribed hormones or surgery that place them more into physical alignment with their identity, while others choose not to use medical intervention. Transgender identity is not dependent on clothing, appearance or medical procedures. Transgender people are not crossdressers. Their trans identity is not for fun or occasional use; it is part of who they are.
The Health Impact of Discrimination
Trans youth and adults face an incredible amount of societal misunderstanding. Most trans people are aware that they are transgendered from a very young age. This awareness, coupled with the way our society often reacts to LGBTQ individuals, can lead to an incredible amount of stress.
The American Psychological Association found that, “for many adults, dealing with discrimination results in a state of heightened vigilance and changes in behavior, which in itself can trigger stress responses — that is, even the anticipation of discrimination is sufficient to cause people to become stressed.”4
All of this stress adds up. Trans people experience a great deal of discriminatory stress. Experiences of discrimination can cause long-term health problems, including:
- Increases in the stress hormone, cortisol
- Heart problems and decreased cardiac functionality
- Impaired memory, cognitive decline and even risk of Alzheimer’s disease5
It can also lead to mental health distress, including:
- Anxiety disorders
- Higher risk of suicidal ideation and suicide
- Substance use disorders — often used in an attempt to numb emotional pain5
The Importance of Transgender Names
Individuals who are transgender sometimes choose to have a different name, a name that fits their true selves better and makes the most sense to them. Their chosen name may align better with who they are inside, and it may be a name of the opposite birth-assigned sex, a gender-neutral name or any other type of name.
Transgender names are not names that are pulled out of a hat. Transgender individuals often ponder a name that suits them best for years before choosing one.
In some cases, people choose to keep their old name and in other cases, their old names become “dead names,” relics of a life they used to live. A dead name can be a reminder of a painful time or an old version of self that is no longer who they are today, so it’s often no longer used as a name.
If someone you care about has a new name, a name that aligns better with their identity, it is very important to use that person’s new name.
Among many studies, one from the University of Texas at Austin found that when loved ones, colleagues and friends use a person’s chosen name in just one area of their life, that person may experience up to a 29 percent decrease in suicidal thoughts.
Individuals who are transgender and able to use their chosen name in several areas (at work, in school, at home and with their friend groups) experience:
- 71 percent fewer depression symptoms
- 34 percent fewer reported suicidal thoughts
- 65 percent lower chance of suicidal attempts6
Using a person’s chosen name and accepting them for who they are can save that person’s life.
If you or someone you love struggles with substance use and need a supportive, inclusive environment where you can find healing, advice and treatment, contact Michael’s House to learn more about how we can help.
1 Pickman, B., Griggs, B. The World Health Organization will stop classifying transgender people as mentally ill. CNN. June 20, 2018.
2 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-5. 5th ed., American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Print
3 GLAAD. Tips for Allies of Transgender People. 2018.
4 American Psychological Association. Stress in America: The Impact of Discrimination. March 2016.
5 Association for Psychological Science. Experiencing Discrimination Increases Risk-Taking, Anger, and Vigilance. December 2012.
6 University of Texas at Austin. Using chosen names reduces odds of depression and suicide in transgender youths. March 30, 2018.