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Gender-affirming care ‘can save lives,’ new research shows


 

Transgender and nonbinary young people experienced less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts after a year of gender-affirming care with hormones or puberty blockers, according to new research.

“Given the high rates of adverse mental health comorbidities, these data provide critical evidence that expansion of gender-affirming care can save lives,” said David J. Inwards-Breland, MD, MPH, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine and codirector of the Center for Gender-Affirming Care at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, during his presentation.

The findings, presented October 11 at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2021 National Conference, were not at all surprising to Cora Breuner, MD, MPH, professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“The younger we can provide gender-affirming care, the less likely they’re going to have depression, and then the negative outcomes from untreated depression, which includes suicide intent or even suicide completion,” Dr. Breuner told this news organization. “It’s so obvious that we are saving lives by providing gender-affirming care.”

For their study, Dr. Inwards-Breland and his colleagues tracked depression, anxiety, and suicidality in 104 trans and nonbinary people 13 to 21 years of age who received care at the Seattle Children’s gender clinic between August 2017 and June 2018.

The study population consisted of 63 transgender male or male participants, 27 transgender female or female participants, 10 nonbinary participants, and four participants who had not defined their gender identity. Of this cohort, 62.5% were receiving mental health therapy, and 34.7% reported some substance use.

Participants completed the nine-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) and the seven-item Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale (GAD-7) at baseline and then at 3, 6, and 12 months. The researchers defined severe depression and severe anxiety as a score of 10 or greater on either scale.

At baseline, 56.7% of the participants had moderate to severe depression, 43.3% reported thoughts of self-harm or suicidal in the previous 2 weeks, and 50.0% had moderate to severe anxiety.

After 12 months of care, participants experienced a 60% decrease in depression (adjusted odds ratio, 0.4) and a 73% decrease in suicidality (aOR, 0.27), after adjustment for temporal trends and sex assigned at birth, race/ethnicity, level of parental support, ongoing mental health therapy, substance use, and victimization, including bullying, interpersonal violence, neglect, and abuse.

Although the decline in depression and suicidality after gender-affirming treatment was not a surprise, “those drops are huge,” Dr. Inwards-Breland said in an interview.

He said he attributes the improvement to a health care system that “affirms who these young people are” and enables changes that allow their outward appearance to reflect “who they know they are inside.”

There were no significant changes in anxiety during the study period. “Anxiety, I think, is just a little harder to treat, and it takes a little longer to treat,” he explained. And a lot of factors can trigger anxiety, and those can continue during treatment.

The slow pace of changes to gender identity can have an effect on people’s moods. “Since they’re not happening quickly, these young people are still being misgendered, they’re still seeing the body that they don’t feel like they should have, and they have to go to school and go out in public. I think that continues to fuel anxiety with a lot of these young people.”

Family support is important in reducing depression and suicidal thoughts in this population. Parents will often see positive changes after their child receives gender-affirming care, which can help contribute to positive changes in parents’ attitudes, Dr. Inwards-Breland said.

Such changes reinforce “that protective factor of connectedness with family,” he noted. “Families are crucial for any health care, and if there’s that connectedness with families, we know that, clinically, patients do better.”

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