Studies Suggest Gender-Affirming Care Supports Mental Health of Young People
An Expert Discusses Her Research and Experience
Published June 2023
According to the World Health Organization, gender-affirming care is a combination of social, behavioral, medical and psychological interventions that help support an individual's gender identity, or the gender they associate with internally.
Gender-affirming care can mean many things, from how you dress and the name you use to hormone therapies, cosmetic treatments and surgeries. And it does not have to be limited to people of a certain age. In fact, teens and young adults can also experience benefits from gender-affirming care.
Research shows that gender-affirming care can help improve the lives of those experiencing gender dysphoria, or the psychological distress someone can feel when their internal sense of gender doesn't match their sex assigned at birth.
"My patients come in after surgery, and they are more vibrant, more comfortable," says Sumanas Wanant Jordan, MD, PhD, a plastic surgeon and co-director of the Northwestern Medicine Gender Pathways Program, which provides affirming care to transgender and other gender-diverse patients in accordance with guidelines from the World Professional Association of Transgender Health. "Even their posture is different. Overall, there are just such positive changes in their adaptive functioning."
Review the Research
In 2022, Northwestern Medicine published results of a groundbreaking study involving transgender and nonbinary patients age 13 to 24 who were assigned female at birth. (Nonbinary people are those whose gender is neither male nor female.)
Scientists found that top surgery, or the removal of breasts, significantly improved:
- Chest dysphoria, or emotional or physical discomfort relating to breast development
- Gender congruence, or how much you feel that your body matches you gender
- Body image satisfaction
Research consolidated by The Trevor Project also indicates that gender-affirming care has been shown to improve mental health for gender-diverse youth. Among the studies cited, data suggests:
- While transgender and nonbinary (TGNB) people experience higher rates of mental health challenges, with anxiety and depression experienced at nearly 10 times the rate of their non-TGNB peers, TGNB children who have socially transitioned show similar levels of self-worth and depression as non-TGNB children.
- Puberty suppression was associated with decreased behavioral and emotional problems, as well as decreased symptoms of depression in TGNB children ages 12 to 16.
- Transgender individuals who underwent puberty suppression as adolescents have much lower rates of suicidal ideation during their lifetime compared to those who wanted but did not get this treatment.
- TGNB youth experience lower rates of depression, suicidal ideation and suicidal behavior when their chosen name is consistently used.
Know the Facts
To best support TGNB youth in your life, be sure you understand the facts, and share them with others who may not understand gender-affirming care.
Fact: Young people can make these kinds of decisions.
"We should not underestimate young people's abilities to know themselves," Dr. Jordan explains. "Even children can know the deepest sense of who they are." She advises critics of gender-affirming care to reflect on their own youth and when they realized who they were.
Fact: You can't just walk into a hospital and get gender-related surgical services.
No one undergoes surgery without proper consent and a comprehensive evaluation, says Dr. Jordan.
"We collaborate with mental health teams to make sure this is the right time and care option for every patient," explains Dr. Jordan. "These decisions are made collaboratively with a physician, the parents or guardians, and the child."
Fact: The majority of people who undergo gender-affirming procedures do not regret it.
Data shows that the regret rate for gender-affirming surgery is less than 1%.
"It's so important for doctors, scientists, patients and members of the gender-diverse community to have a voice in these conversations," Dr. Jordan explains. "As caretakers, we want to keep functioning and providing great care for our patients. We want to gather and follow the facts, and then have a rational conversation about what is best to do for each patient."