Oct 21, 2012

We Need To Talk About Trans Mental Health

Max: There has been a lot of talk recently about Transgender people and Mental Health. On the one hand we've got LGBTQ Charities quite rightly raising the alarm that suicide in the Trans* community is reaching tragic proportions- that we are internalising the often violent attitude of society in on ourselves. On the other hand we are standing up and saying 'Transgender is not a form of mental illness!'- what is going on? To get to the bottom of all this, I decided to talk to Sarah Savage about her courageous (and sometime hilarious!) journey to feel good in her skin and her mind.
Here's what she had to say;

Sarah: Little over a year ago I was still living as a male, I was broke, living in my car and at the bottom of a deep dark hole. In the years leading up to this point I had become extremely depressed, I had self harmed since I was a young teenager, struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, pulled away from my friends and have even attempted suicide in the past. I was addicted to escapism, anything to stop the incredible sense of dread I felt from having to live as someone who I was not. I knew I did not have the strength to begin transition on my home island of Jersey so when a stranger I’d met on an internet chat room asked me to come and live with her I grabbed the opportunity with both hands, I was desperate. When I arrived at her house it quickly became clear she had not been honest with me and she had her own problems with alcohol. My lowest point was having to return to Jersey, knowing I was effectively turning my back on transitioning but I knew more than anything that I could not go back to my old ways of escapism.

I honestly didn’t care if I lived or died, living a lie was slowly but surely killing me. If you had been able to see statistics for trans people’s mental health I wouldn’t have registered on them because the medical establishment didn’t see me as ‘trans’ anything, they saw me as a male. I had asked my local health authority for help with transitioning and was fobbed off, given a prescription for some happy pills and told that the reason I wanted to transition was because I was depressed and I just needed to keep my mind occupied on something else.
My experiences are not unique, a recent study undertaken by the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (www.teni.ie) showed that 44% of trans respondents had self harmed and 40% had attempted suicide in their life while almost 4/5ths had thought about ending their life. This compares with 4% of attempted suicides in heterosexual, cis-gendered people. (http://www.livescience.com/13755-homosexual-lgb-teen-suicide-rates-environments.html )
The pressure that comes with being transgendered is huge. I have lost friends and family because I decided that my only other option other than death was to transition, I gave up my home, my job and every day that I leave my flat I take the chance of being abused by some bigoted member of society who does not understand why I have to live like I do. With the sheer amount of social stigma surrounding us, it’s no wonder that so many trans folk suffer from mental health problems, the deck is stacked against us. Added to this is the fact that the medical community still doesn’t fully understand what causes Gender Identity issues. The World Health Organisation still describes being transgendered as a mental illness despite studies showing otherwise.

What the medical establishment failed to see was that my depression was a symptom of being transsexual, not the cause. This is of huge importance for the trans community, if we can get doctors to understand that a trans persons mental health if far more likely to improve during and after confronting and solving their gender identity issues then treatment for us can only get better.
The more I tried to live as a male, the worse my mental health became. Since I have started my transition, started being true to myself and gaining acceptance from my friends and society as female my mental heath has improved significantly, I feel happier, more complete and able to see myself as a valid member of society. Don’t get me wrong, I still have ‘down’ days and know enough about depression and mental health illnesses that my road to recovery will not happen overnight but for the first time in a very long time I have a positive view for the future.
Over the years I have learnt coping strategies to help deal with the mental health problems that I have faced. Keeping a good circle of friends around me has helped no end, they have been there for me through thick and thin, some of them I’ve never even met as we correspond via internet and phone but I feel support from them nonetheless. Keeping physically active has also helped, it’s such a clichéd thing to say to someone with depression but sometimes for me getting out of the house for a good walk with nature has lifted my spirits and put things in perspective, even when I’ve forced myself into it. The thing that has made the biggest difference is simply confronting and dealing with my gender identity issues, I’m not saying it’s a magical ‘fix all’ but by no longer ignoring the elephant in the room my mind is clearer and I am more able to cope with what life throws at me.

Sarah has her own Agony and Advice Column where you can write in and ask her for to share her valuable wisdom on a topic or question of your choice.
You can also sign our petition urging the WHO to de-classify Transsexuality as a Mental Illness here.

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rachel said...

I think that mental health and making people aware of the struggles we go through is a big issue. I am not LGBT but have always struggled with mental health problems and have self harmed from a young age its a coping mechanism and unfortunately most people who do this will take it too far at some point due to lack of help and someone to talk to, most people who are not aware of the problem would see it as attention seeking and unfortunately some people do self harm for this attention, but its the ones who dont tell anyone that need the help and support. It dosnt matter who you are your age, sexuality, colour or religion we all need support from time to time and im glad that there are people around that are trying to raise awareness of this unfortunately most will turn a blind eye to it unless they have experienced it personally or had a family or friend that has done so. Either way im a firm beleiver in supporting anyone through their struggles and would always lend a ear and advice to anyone who wanted it. x

Andie said...

It is a bitter irony that having started my last leg of the journey with a psychiatrist, and with my gender deemed a disorder of the mental variety, I was referred within a month and told (or at least I found out) that I had received funding. Only to be waiting in limbo for many months for a date for a first appointment with a gender clinic.

What troubles me is that I know people who have been waiting over a year and still haven't heard about a first date. That means there are an awful lot of people stuck in this position, living as best they can in their true gender with a non-conforming body, and no help or support whatsoever. I may feel robust right now. I am older, maybe tougher, maybe less obvious than some. But I really feel frightened for those who are not. A psychiatric diagnosis with zero psychiatric support? This is a degree of carelessness and dereliction - "First do no harm?" It seems our healthcare system has forgotten. Doing nothing is very harmful.

Scarecrow Musings said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences, for a number of us it is a lonely painful path. I am just glad that I have the support and acceptance (if slow to change pronouns =P) support of my family and freinds.

Rebecca Williams said...

I love the powerful pictures here, Sarah. I think it's really important that trans issues are understood at an early age and there's an established and agreed protocol for screening and helping gender varient young people. Things are changing and schools curriculum now includes awareness of LGBT issues which is... wonderful. Primary school understanding of trans issues is particularly poor but this is exactly where sensitive intervention, guidance and support really needs to take place. I think they have a pivotal role to play in the assessment and referral of children before the onset of puberty. They act in loco parentis, they have responsibility as educators and accountable professionals to safegaurd the emotional welfare of trans children... before it gets too late. Lets move the responsibilty from the child (to declare, nay scream, his or her true gender against immense sociological pressure) to the adult - where gender diverse behaviour is more apparent. x

Anonymous said...

An awesome set of thoughts and revelations....mind expanding ...wow

Anonymous said...

I think you voiced what so many people go through, myself included. I made the choice only yesterday to leave my house after days and days of sitting inside with blinds closed. I relate to all you have said.I don't feel I have a mental illness. I just feel unsupported by those who I thought were closest to me yes I have thought about ending it all about running away about trying to get locked up and away from my life but this would be too easy as it is all I know and old behaviour. I am not mentally ill unstable at times yes but a mental illness No... Just don't push your horrid views of me down my throat at every chance you get If you do not like how I live bad luck... I am living and getting stronger everyday I just say watch world I am about to make my entrance and it will be a good one... Knowing I am not alone in feeling this way helps me so much...