In another salvo in the heated debate over treatment for kids who believe they’re transgender, a study published insuggests that transgender adults who received hormone therapy as teenagers are mentally healthier in a pair of ways than those who didn’t.
The study, which only looks at transgender adults, doesn’t confirm that hormone therapy in childhood is a beneficial treatment. Still, “we found that for all age groups, access to [adolescent] gender-affirming hormone initiation was associated with lower odds of past-year suicidal ideation and past-month severe psychological distress measured in adulthood,” said lead author Jack Turban, MD, chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford (Calif.) University, in an interview. “We also found better mental-health outcomes for those who started gender-affirming hormones as adolescents when compared to those who didn’t start them until they were adults.”
The use of hormone treatment and puberty blockers by transgender teens is extremely controversial. Critics say the treatments are harmful and unnecessary, and Republican politicians are trying to ban their use in some states. Last spring, Arkansas became the first state to ban the treatments. The law is on hold amid a legal challenge.
The researchers launched the study to gain more insight into the impact of hormone therapy on children. “There have been several longitudinal studies showing that mental health improves following gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth, but there has been less research looking at the relationship between when these medications are started and adult mental health outcomes,” Dr. Turban said. “This is the first study to look at various ages of initiation of gender-affirming hormones and compare outcomes between those who started gender-affirming hormones during adolescence and those who did not start them until adulthood.”
For the new study, the authors analyzed the findings of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey of 27,715 adults and focused on 21,598 who said they’d wanted hormone therapy (40% aged 18-24, 83% White, 35% transgender male, 41% transgender female, with the rest using other terms such as “queer” or “nonbinary” to describe themselves).
Of these subjects, 41.0% never received hormone therapy, 0.6% underwent therapy in early adolescence, 1.7% received it in late adolescence, and 56.8% got it as adults.
The researchers made various adjustments for confounders – age, partnership status, employment status, K-12 harassment, and experience of gender identity conversion efforts. Those who received hormone therapy had lower odds of past-year suicidal ideation vs. those who didn’t: adjusted odds ratio, 0.4; 95% confidence interval, 0.2-0.6; P < .0001 for therapy that occurred from age 14 to 15, aOR, 0.5; 95% CI, 0.4-0.7; P < .0001, for therapy that occurred from age 16 to 17, and aOR, 0.8; 95% CI, 0.7-0.8; P < .0001 for therapy that occurred in adulthood.
However, there was no statistically significant link between hormone therapy and past-year suicidal ideation with a plan or past-year suicide attempt.
The study also found lower rates of past-month severe psychological distress: aOR. 0.3; 95% CI, 0.2-0.4; P < .0001 for therapy from age 14 to 15, aOR, 0.3; 95% CI, 0.3-0.4; P < .0001 for therapy from age 16 to 17, and aOR, 0.6 (95% CI, 0.5-0.6; P < .0001) for therapy in adulthood.
There was no statistically significant link between hormone therapy and past-month binge drinking or lifetime illicit drug use.
“The findings indicate that clinicians caring for adolescents need to be properly trained in gender-affirming medical care, including hormone therapy, in order to help promote good mental health outcomes for transgender people. Comprehensive training in gender-affirming care is currently not part of standard medical education curricula,” said study coauthor Alex Keuroghlian, MD, MPH, director of the National LGBTQIA+ Health Education Center at the Fenway Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Boston, in an interview.
The study has limitations. The survey population doesn’t include anyone who committed suicide, nor does it include people who had gender dysphoria as children but didn’t go on to identify as transgender as adults. It is also retrospective. “There is a general consensus that, given the data we have so far, it would be unethical to conduct a randomized controlled trial in this space,” said study lead author Dr. Turban.
Several critics of hormone therapy in teens support a psychotherapy-based approach to gender dysphoria that considers whether other factors are at play than transgender orientation. They’ve united to attack research based on the 2015 transgender survey. Inin Archives of Sexual Behavior, they called it “a highly skewed sample” and objected to “a conflation of ethical nonaffirmative psychotherapy with conversion therapy.”
In an interview, one of the critics – developmental psychologist and retired University of Sydney professor Dianna Kenny, PhD – said the new study’s “serious problem of recall bias” about hormone therapy in the survey is “insurmountable.” The survey, she said, also fails to explore why participants who wanted hormone therapy didn’t get it.
Dr. Kenny, who believes all hormone therapy in teens with gender dysphoria outside of clinical trials is inappropriate, also pointed out that hormone therapy has many side effects. She added that young people with gender dysphoria often “realize through a process of cognitive and psychosocial maturation that they were not ‘genuinely’ trans but suffering from other conditions that needed treatment – e.g., internalized homophobia, trauma, including sexual abuse, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, etc.”
No specific funding is reported, although two of the authors report receiving various grants, fellowship and research funding. Dr. Turban discloses textbook royalties from Springer Nature and expert witness payments from the ACLU. Dr. Keuroghlian discloses textbook royalties from McGraw Hill. Dr. Kenny reports no disclosures.