Medical Technology

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,” Breuner told Medscape Medical News. “It’s so obvious that we are saving lives by providing gender-affirming care.”

For their study, 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 [aOR], 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,” Inwards-Breland told Medscape Medical News.

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

Anxiety, I think, is just a little harder to treat, and it takes a little longer to treat.

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, Inwards-Breland said.

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

Balancing Risks

Although there are risks associated with gender-affirming hormones and puberty blockers, the risks of not receiving treatment must also be considered.

“Our young people are killing themselves,” he said. “Our young people are developing severe eating disorders that are killing them. Our young people are increasing their substance abuse, homelessness, depression. The list just goes on.”

For trans-masculine and nonbinary masculine patients, the potential permanent changes of hormone therapy include a deeper voice, hair growth, enlargement of the clitoris, and, in some patients, the development of male pattern baldness. In trans and nonbinary feminine patients, potential long-term effects include breast development and an increased risk for fertility issues.

The consent forms required for young people who want gender-affirming hormones or puberty blockers are extensive, with every possible reversible and irreversible effect described in detail, Breuner said.

When you compare the cost of someone who has severe debilitating depression and dying by suicide with some of the risks associated with gender-affirming hormone therapy, that’s a no brainer to me.

“Parents sign them because they want their child to stay alive,” she explained. “When you compare the cost of someone who has severe debilitating depression and dying by suicide with some of the risks associated with gender-affirming hormone therapy, that’s a no brainer to me.”

This study is limited by the fact that screening tests, not diagnostic tests, were used to identify depression, anxiety, and suicidality, and the fact that the use of antidepression or antianxiety medications was not taken into account, Inwards-Breland acknowledged.

“I think future studies should look at a mental health evaluation and diagnosis by a mental health provider,” he added. And mental health, gender dysphoria, suicidality, and self-harm should be tracked over the course of treatment.

He also acknowledged the study’s selection bias. All participants sought care at a multidisciplinary gender clinic, so were likely to be privileged and to have supportive families. “There’s a good chance that if we had more trans and nonbinary youth of color, we may have different findings,” he said.

More qualitative research is needed to assess the effect of gender-affirming therapy on the mental health of these patients, Breuner said.

“Being able to finally come into who you think you are and enjoy expressing who you are in a gender-affirming way has to be positive in such a way that you’re not depressed anymore,” she added. “It has to be tragic for people who cannot stand the body they’re in and cannot talk about it to anybody or express themselves without fear of recourse, to the point that they would be so devastated that they’d want to die by suicide.”

This research was funded by the Seattle Children’s Center for Diversity and Health Equity and the Pacific Hospital Development and Port Authority. Inwards-Breland and Breuner have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2021 National Conference. Presented October 11, 2021.

Tara Haelle is a Dallas-based science and medical journalist.

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