A pair of new studies is shining a light on the negative mental health outcomes documented in transgender youth. It’s already understood that trans kids face a higher risk of substance abuse and suicidal thinking, but the latest research proves that those outcomes are directly connected to experiences of victimization.
The two studies, published in peer-reviewed journals this month by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, found that suicidal ideation was nearly twice as high for transgender youth compared to their non-transgender peers, and the prevalence of substance use was 2.5 to 4 times higher for transgender youth, depending on the substance (alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, harder drugs, etc.). In both cases, these higher rates correlated with higher rates of victimization and depressive symptoms.
These findings are not entirely novel, but the studies use data from two massive surveys California conducted across its school systems. Jack Day, a postdoctoral fellow with UT Austin’s Population Research Center who worked on both studies, explained to ThinkProgress that this makes them far more representative than other studies that rely on convenience samples. “We’re able to show the magnitude of these issues inside schools,” he said in a phone interview, “so we have a better idea how many trans youth we’re talking about as well as what the size of the disparity is among a broader, more generalizable population.” One of the studies, for example, captured over 300 trans students out of a sample of over 30,000 participants.
“It’s really exciting exciting and important because it is such a diverse state,” Day said, noting the data captures a broad range of racial identities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and urban and rural demographics. “It really does provide a window into what is happening to our youth.”
Though the studies establish a link between victimization (everything from ridicule to assault) and these negative outcomes, they don’t provide much detail on the kind of victimization that’s taking place. It’s clear that trans youth are experiencing higher rates of victimization and that it’s producing certain negative outcomes, but it’s not clear if that harassment is directly related to their trans identity. There’s reason to suspect a connection is there, however, given the results found an even higher rate of suicidal ideation for those trans youth who also identified as a sexual minority (i.e. non-heterosexual).
The research was only possible because these California surveys actually invited students to identify their sexual orientation and gender identity. “The more we can parse that out, the more we have a better idea of the unique experience they have,” Day explained. “It’s important to collect that data and share that data, and then make it accessible.” Only then can researchers like him actually find these connections.
Day suspects that there may be a “real fear about how data might be used to embarrass and shame schools,” but he is also optimistic that there is a growing recognition that school climate studies are an important way to measure how successful students can be. “Youth experiences within schools are so varied that the more data we have, the better we can understand the complex issues they face,” he said.
In future studies, Day plans to access information about what policies schools have in place to see the kind of impact they’re having on these outcomes. Other studies have found that factors such as nondiscrimination and anti-bullying policies, training on LGBTQ identities for faculty and staff, LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, and a student organization like a gay-straight alliance can help mitigate negative outcomes. Incorporating these factors will help determine which students at which schools are most at risk.
These studies only capture the experiences of youth who were in school to take the surveys, of course. Students who had dropped out or who’d been expelled or suspended are not represented in the data, and they might be more at risk for negative outcomes.
“The biggest takeaway is that we really are helping schools be the most supportive environments they can be for all youth in those schools,” Day said. “We are focused on these outcomes that are negative, but our hope is to really understand how we can support not just LGBT youth, but make schools more positive [environments] for all youth to attend.”