Study Suggests Taking Transgender Identity Off Mental Disorders List

New findings suggest that it would be appropriate to remove the diagnosis of transgender from its current classification as a mental disorder in the WHO International Classification of Diseases (ICD), according to a new study in Mexico City.

The research, led by the National Institute of Psychiatry Ramón de le Fuente Muñiz, involved interviewing 250 transgender people and found that distress and dysfunction (two major components of mental health diagnoses) were more strongly related to social rejection and violence rather than by gender incongruence itself.

Currently, transgender identity is classified as a mental disorder in both of the world’s main diagnostic manuals, the WHO’s ICD-10 and the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5. A major component of the definition of mental disorders is that they are associated with distress and impairment in functioning.

Labeling transgender identity as a mental disorder is becoming increasingly controversial and a WHO Working Group has recommended that transgender identity should no longer be classified as a mental disorder in ICD-11, but should instead come under a new chapter on conditions related to sexual health.

“Our findings support the idea that distress and dysfunction may be the result of stigmatization and maltreatment, rather than integral aspects of transgender identity,” said lead investigator Dr. Rebeca Robles, Mexican National Institute of Psychiatry.

“The next step is to confirm this in further studies in different countries, ahead of the approval of the WHO revision to International Classification of Diseases in 2018.”

The study is the first of several field trials and is currently being replicated in Brazil, France, India, Lebanon, and South Africa.

Stigma associated with both mental disorder and transgender identity has contributed to the precarious legal status, human rights violations, and barriers to appropriate care among transgender people,” said senior author Professor Geoffrey Reed, National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“The definition of transgender identity as a mental disorder has been misused to justify denial of health care and contributed to the perception that transgender people must be treated by psychiatric specialists, creating barriers to health care services.”

“The definition has even been misused by some governments to deny self-determination and decision-making authority to transgender people in matters ranging from changing legal documents to child custody and reproduction.”

Researchers interviewed 250 transgender individuals aged 18-65 who were receiving health care services at the Condesa Clinic, the only publicly funded specialized clinic providing transgender health care services in Mexico City. Most participants were transgender women, assigned male sex at birth (199 participants, 80 percent).

During the study, they completed a detailed interview about their experience of gender incongruence in adolescence (e.g, discomfort with secondary sex characteristics, changes performed to be more similar to the desired gender, and asking to be referred to as the desired gender), and recalled related experiences of psychological distress, functional impairment, social rejection, and violence.

Participants reported first becoming aware of their transgender identity during childhood or adolescence (ages two to 17), and most experienced psychological distress related to gender incongruence during their adolescence (208, 83 percent), with depressive symptoms being the most common.

Family, social, or work or academic dysfunction during adolescence related to their gender identity was reported by nearly all participants (226, 90 percent).

Seventy-six percent of the participants reported experiencing social rejection related to gender incongruence, most commonly by family members, followed by schoolmates/co-workers and friends.

Sixty-three percent had been a victim of violence related to their gender identity; in nearly half of these cases, violence was perpetrated by a family member. Psychological and physical violence were the most commonly reported, and some experienced sexual violence.

The findings show that none of the gender incongruence variables predicted psychological distress or dysfunction, except in one case where asking to be referred to as the desired gender predicted school/work dysfunction. On the other hand, social rejection and violence were strong predictors of distress and all types of dysfunction.

“Rates of experiences related to social rejection and violence were extremely high in this study, and the frequency with which this occurred within participants own families is particularly disturbing,” Robles said.

“Unfortunately, the level of maltreatment experienced in this sample is consistent with other studies from around the world. This study highlights the need for policies and programs to reduce stigmatization and victimization of this population. The removal of transgender diagnoses from the classification of mental disorders can be a useful part of those efforts.”

The findings are published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

Source: The Lancet