Brain and Body

Transgender Identity Is Not a Mental Health Disorder, New Research Argues

July 27, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Laverne Cox speaking at an event in the Missouri Theatre
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Researchers urge the World Health Organization to change its classification.

The World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5 currently classify transgender identity as a mental health disorder, but a new study from Mexico argues that transgender people shouldn’t be classified as such.

The study is the first in a series aimed at determining whether this categorization is suitable, and the trials will be repeated in Brazil, France, India, Lebanon and South Africa.

In the current research, which appears in The Lancet Psychiatry, the team interviewed 250 transgender people in Mexico City, attempting to distinguish whether the distress and mental dysfunction associated with transgender identity are an inherent part of being transgender or a result of stigmatization. Distress and dysfunction are often considered a key feature of having a mental health disorder, the researchers say.

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In the interviews, the transgender people reported their experiences with having a transgender identity — at what age they became aware of it, psychological distress, social rejection, difficulty functioning in day-to-day life, and violence.

According to the findings, 76 percent of the study participants reported experiencing social rejection, and 63 percent reported being a victim of violence due to their transgender identity. In fact, the researchers wrote that it was “particularly disturbing” to see the frequency at which these violent acts occurred within the participants’ own families.

“Unfortunately, the level of maltreatment experienced in this sample is consistent with other studies from around the world,” lead investigator Dr. Rebeca Robles, of the Mexican National Institute of Psychiatry, said in a press release.

The team used statistical analysis to determine that violence and social rejection were strong indicators that a transgender individual would experience distress and dysfunction. On the contrary, having a transgender identity was not a predictor.

"Our findings support the idea that distress and dysfunction may be the result of stigmatization and maltreatment, rather than integral aspects of transgender identity," Robles says.

In other words, rather than the mental health issues experienced by transgender people being a result of their identity, the authors suggest it’s more likely to be the result of the prejudice against transgenders.

“This study highlights the need for policies and programs to reduce stigmatization and victimization of this population,” Robles argues. "The next step is to confirm this in further studies in different countries, ahead of the approval of the WHO revision to International Classification of Diseases in 2018."

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