Flood of anti-transgender legislation takes mental health toll on population

By Eileen Weber
July 3rd, 2023
Jonah DeChants
Jonah DeChants, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at The Trevor Project.

Study: One in three report poor mental health often or always

Republicans have launched a series of legislative efforts limiting transgender youth to access healthcare, play sports, and use certain bathrooms. In May, Oklahoma’s governor signed legislation making gender-affirming care for minors a felony. In many cases, GOP leaders claim these bills are meant to protect the children from damaging “liberal indoctrination.”

Boston University’s Project AVANT (Advancing Voices of Adolescents Identifying as Non-Binary and Transgender) surveyed hundreds of transgender and gender diverse youth specifically about their mental health, perception of school belonging, and available support systems.

The study followed these students over a period of time, surveying about every six months. Overall, approximately 58 percent of participants acknowledged they experienced clinical depression.

According to a 2020 peer-reviewed study by the Trevor Project published in the ”Journal of Adolescent Health,” transgender and nonbinary youth were up to two and half times more likely to experience depressive symptoms and consider or attempt suicide than their peers. These rates nearly doubled for transgender people of color.

Jonah DeChants, Ph.D., senior research scientist at The Trevor Project, noted the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation is taking its toll on that community, particularly trans youth.

He noted The Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. National Survey on the Mental Health of LGBTQ Young People found that nearly one in three LGBTQ young people said their mental health was poor most of the time or always because of anti-LGBTQ policies and legislation.

“Recent polling shows that 86 percent of transgender and nonbinary youth said debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people negatively impacted their mental health,” he said.

In response, court cases have been filed against recent legislation.

For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been suing states that have already banned transgender civil rights. They are currently in legal battles with several states including Tennessee, Missouri, and Indiana for their bans against gender-affirming care

In the Missouri case, the ACLU in conjunction with Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) issued a statement, saying in part, “This is a dangerous and unprecedented escalation in the assault on evidence-based health care for transgender people. Cutting off treatment for those who need it will create predictable, unnecessary, and serious harm.”

Based on data from the Trans Legislation Tracker, there are currently 504 bills in 49 states of which 45 have passed, 362 are pending, and 97 failed.

In the New England states, Maine introduced two bills this year—one for requiring parental approval for the use of personal pronouns and the other prohibiting trans athletes from competing in girls’ scholastic sports.

Vermont also has one introduced bill regarding trans athletes in scholastic sports.

New Hampshire has ongoing legislation that includes a bill that would prohibit minors from gender-affirming procedures.

Massachusetts proposed a bill for parental rights in education which in part “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.”

Rhode Island has issued legislation concerning trans youth in sports and bathroom access.

Finally, Connecticut introduced five bills ranging from recognizing only the biological gender of students, requiring access to gender-specific facilities, and prohibiting trans athletes in interscholastic sports.

Christopher Janeway, MS, LCMHC, is a counselor and psychotherapist in Burlington, Vermont.

Christopher Janeway, MS, LCMHC, a counselor and psychotherapist in Burlington, Vt., said his practice is about 90 percent transgender people. He said that because Vermont is a far more transgender-friendly state, there is less fear of the mass Republican-led legislation.

Even so, he said, “The youth may not be talking about it, but they are definitely aware. Parents are talking about it. They’re worried. And Vermont is not immune. We have had one bill introduced, although I’m confident it won’t pass.”

Janeway relayed some of his clientele’s personal experiences. In one case, an older transgender person who spends the winter in Florida has become fearful of needing medical attention when he is there. So, he avoids scheduling any appointments until he gets back to Vermont.

In another case, a teen patient visiting their grandparents in another state that had passed legislative bans had homophobic slurs yelled at them from a passing car because of a rainbow decal on their backpack.

“There is a connection when policies are passed,” he said. “It sends a clear message to trans youth that they should not exist, and I think this also creates more permission to harass. While I do hear stories of harassment in Vermont, I hear even more when my patients travel to states that have passed anti-trans legislation.”

He also talked about emotionally supporting a family who chose to make the move from Texas to Vermont. “They’re leaving friends, their livelihood. That’s no easy feat.” He noted that this family is just one example of the exodus of transgender people leaving home to live in states with better policies.

The backlash from all of this legislation is not just apparent in professional mental healthcare. Janeway explained that his son works with the homeless in his area. He said they’ve seen an uptick in homeless transgender individuals who admitted they’d rather be homeless in Vermont than living in a state that bans them. He said people are moving if they can and taking enormous risks to do so.

Janeway offered this advice for transgender people: find a viable avenue to mental health support. He was less worried about his own patients who have a mental health lifeline, rather his concern is for the transgender people who don’t have needed mental healthcare.

DeChants added, “Regardless of whether these bills pass or not, the harmful rhetoric surrounding them is already causing harm. Transgender and nonbinary young people face significantly higher suicide risk compared to their peers—not because they are inherently prone to suicide risk, but rather, they are placed at higher risk because of how they are mistreated and stigmatized by society. “

He urged lawmakers to reject anti-trans bills and focus on policies that aim to protect and promote the mental health and well-being of all young people.

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