Effects of different steps in gender reassignment therapy on psychopathology: a prospective study of persons with a gender identity disorder

This study found that hormone therapy reduced symptoms of psychological distress, although surgery had no further effect.

However, this conclusion is undercut by the fact that one person committed suicide during follow-up,* treatment did not reduce the prevalence of suicide attempts, and 17% of the people surveyed after treatment reported suicidal thoughts.

There are also areas where the methodology of the study could be improved.

Finally, the data on the percentages of suicide attempts is confusing. See the end of this review for details on the data.

Summary of the results:

After treatment, patients reported fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression, interpersonal sensitivity, and hostility.

Transition did not reduce the percentage of suicide attempts.

One patient committed suicide during follow-up.*

Transition did not affect patients’ psychosocial well-being, i.e. employment, relationships, number of sexual contacts, drug use, and suicide attempts.

Over 90% of patients said that they were happier and felt better about their body after treatment, but 17% reported that they had suicidal thoughts.

The improvement in psychological symptoms happens after hormone therapy. Surgery did not cause a significant change in psychopathology, although patients reported slightly more symptoms after surgery than after hormone therapy.

When asked, 57.9% of patients said that they experienced the most improvement after hormone therapy, 31.6% experienced the most improvement after surgery, and 10.5% experienced improvement just from being diagnosed.

After treatment, the average scores of psychopathology were similar to the general population.

After hormone therapy, none of the average subscale scores were different from the general population. However, after surgery, the group’s average scores for sleeping problems (p=0.033) and psychoticism (p=0.051) were higher than the general population.

These results raise some important questions.

What can we do to reduce suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal thoughts in transgender people who have transitioned?

Why didn’t the percentage of suicide attempts go down when people were reporting fewer symptoms of depression?

Why didn’t surgery improve the mental well-being of the patients?

There were also a couple of important methodological questions that the authors did not discuss.

Combining the results of different treatments

As often happens, the study lumped together trans men (born female) and trans women (born male). The treatments for trans women and trans men involve different medications and surgeries. It is possible that androgens and estrogens have different effects on mood. Similarly, it might be that some surgeries are more beneficial to mental health than others or that some surgeries are more stressful than others.

The participants in the study were 46 trans women and 11 trans men. The authors do not discuss whether they differed in their mental health symptoms or social well-being. Nor do they give information on the gender of the people who completed the questionnaires at follow-up.

The study does not specify exactly what medications and dosages were used for the hormone therapy. They do not say exactly what surgeries the patients got.

Missing Data

As with many longitudinal studies, they did not have follow-up data on all of the participants due to incomplete questionnaires. In addition, one participant did not complete a questionnaire at the beginning of the study.

Thus, 56 people completed a questionnaire about their mental health before treatment, but only 47 people completed the questionnaire after hormone treatment. The authors then compared the average scores on the baseline questionnaires to the averages on the questionnaires after hormones.

It is possible that this would lead to a bias in the data. For example if depressed people were less likely to complete follow-up questionnaires, the average for the follow-up questionnaires would show fewer symptoms of depression than the average for the initial questionnaires.

The authors do not discuss whether the people who did not complete the questionnaires after hormone therapy were significantly different from those who did.

Leaving suicide out of the results

The person who committed suicide was not included in the study; if they had been it might have distorted the data. Presumably their responses at baseline would have increased the average score for symptoms of depression, but without a follow-up questionnaire for them, symptoms of depression would appear to go down. Leaving them out makes the results clear – symptoms of depression went down among everyone else.

At the same time, without data on the person who committed suicide during follow-up, it is not fully accurate to say that symptoms of depression went down after treatment. For at least one person it doesn’t make sense to talk about symptoms of depression going down.

Suicide during follow-up is part of the results of this study. It is relevant to the question of whether or not people felt better after transition. When someone commits suicide during a study, this needs to be part of the discussion. When did they commit suicide? Were they depressed before transition? Did they regret the surgery? Did they say they were depressed during or after transition?

Not talking about the suicide is disrespectful to the person who died. It leads to possibly false conclusions about the effects of transition. And it stops us from being able to figure out what we can do to prevent future suicides – do we need to give people more therapy before medical treatments? should some people not get surgery? do we need to give people more therapy after surgery?

Back to the questions raised by the study

What can we do to reduce suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal thoughts in transgender people who have transitioned?

Clearly, medical transition is not enough. It does not prevent suicide, suicide attempts, or suicidal thoughts. It does not even reduce the prevalence of suicide attempts.

As far as I know, this is the only study that has followed a group of people with gender dysphoria during treatment and collected data on suicide attempts.

We need more research to figure out how to prevent suicide and suicide attempts among transgender people after transition. It might also help if we knew more about what was going on in this study.

When exactly were the suicide attempts – after hormones or after surgery? When exactly did the person commit suicide?  Does this reflect regret related to the surgery itself or something else?

Were there any gender differences in the suicide attempts?

Were there any differences in the specific treatments given to the people who attempted suicide? Were there any problems in the outcomes of the treatments?

Did the same people attempt suicide before and after transition?

Did the people who attempted suicide say they were depressed? Had they been diagnosed with mental health issues? Were they getting counseling?

Do we know of things that went wrong in the lives of the people who attempted suicide?

Do some people need more counseling and evaluation before transition? Should we adapt the hormonal doses or surgeries for different people? Do we need to give additional support after transition? Are there alternatives to transition that would better help some people deal with gender dysphoria?

At this point all we know is that we can not rely on medical transition to prevent or reduce suicide attempts among transgender people.

We need to know more.

Why didn’t the percentage of suicide attempts go down when people were reporting fewer symptoms of depression?

The results of this study are somewhat confusing. People reported that their symptoms of depression and psychological distress went down after transition. In addition, the vast majority of people who had transitioned said that they felt better – they were happier (93%), less anxious (81%), more self-confident (79%), and their body-related experience improved (98%). Only 2 people said they were more anxious and 1 less self-confident. Only 2 said that their overall mood was similar.

So why did 7 people (17.6%) report that they had suicidal thoughts? Why were there 4 suicide attempts?

Were the people who had suicidal thoughts so unhappy to start with that an improvement in their mood still left them suicidal? Perhaps they had even more suicidal thoughts before transition – but the prevalence of suicide attempts was not affected by transition.

It’s possible that the group’s average scores for depression are in the normal range while a few individuals are miserable. On the other hand, the group has an above average number of suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts. According to an Emory University website “It is estimated that 3.7% of the U.S. population (8.3 million people) had thoughts of suicide in the past year, with 1.0% of the population (2.3 million people) developing a suicide plan and 0.5% (1 million people) attempting suicide.” In this study, 17.6% of the group reported suicidal thoughts at the moment of follow-up. The suicide attempt percentage was 9.8% at follow-up.

We are looking at a group of people with elevated levels of suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts – how does that fit with questionnaires that find a normal level of symptoms of depression?

Are we seeing accurate reports of how people feel? Are people minimizing their problems when they fill out questionnaires after treatment?

The authors of the study do not discuss the apparent contradiction between suicide attempts and suicidal thoughts one the one hand and an improved mood on the other.

The authors do point out that the percentage of suicide attempts at the beginning of the study was lower than in other studies of transgender people. It may be that the participants in this study had fewer problems than most transgender people; for one thing they are a group that is able to access medical care. However, that does not answer the question of why for this particular group of people transition did not change the prevalence of suicide attempts.

We need more research into what is going on here. We need to be able to identify people who may attempt suicide or feel suicidal after transition so we can help them.

Why didn’t surgery improve the mental well-being of the patients?

We don’t know and we need more research to answer this question. However, here are a few possibilities:

Possibility #1 – Return to regular life

In their discussion, the authors suggest that there might be an initial euphoria after beginning hormones that wears off later on. In addition, after surgery, people might be “again confronted with stigma and other burdens.”

In other words, the improvement after hormone therapy is higher than the improvement will be in the end. There is still an improvement later on, but the initial level of euphoria isn’t going to last. If this is true, it would be important information for people who are transitioning so that they don’t have false expectations of what life will be like after transition is complete.

Possibility #2 – Surgery is not the best treatment for everyone

The authors also suggest that further studies should look at exploring the idea that some patients might want hormones without surgery.

It may be that surgery is not the best treatment for everyone with gender dysphoria. Perhaps some people would have been better off with just hormone therapy.

Previous studies have found that about 3% of people who have had genital surgery regret it, so we would expect one or two people out of 50 to regret their surgery. Perhaps they are depressed and this affects the group average.

Possiblity #3 – Effects of surgery

It is also possible that some people had post-surgical depression and that this affected the results.

Perhaps some people were still recovering from surgery and did not feel well (the study included people 1 to 12 months after surgery). In particular, this might lead to the increase in sleeping problems found in the study.

Perhaps some people were dealing with complications of surgery.

Perhaps the hormonal changes after surgery affected people’s moods.

Possibility #4 – People were already happy

On the other hand, perhaps by the time people get surgery, they are already happy due to counseling, hormones, and social transition.

Perhaps if people had been forced to stop with hormone therapy alone, they would have become unhappy.  As the authors point out, it may have made a difference that they knew they were going to be able to get surgery.

Possibility #5 – Surgery doesn’t affect mental health

It may simply be that surgery does not improve mental health. At this point, we do not have proof that it does.

In the end, we just don’t know.

Further studies are needed to determine if surgery is helpful and who should get it. Perhaps the authors of this study can use the data they already have to address this question.


* Data on this patient was not included in the study.

Original Source:

Effects of different steps in gender reassignment therapy on psychopathology: a prospective study of persons with a gender identity disorder by Gunter Heylens, Charlotte Verroken, Sanne De Cock, Guy T’Sjoen, Griet De Cuypere in J Sex Med 2014 Jan 28;11(1):119-26. Epub 2013 Dec 28.


Questions about the data on suicide attempts:

The authors talk about the prevalence of suicide attempts before and after transition, but they don’t talk about the time periods they are looking at. The authors say that the prevalence of suicide attempts was unchanged, but they don’t explain when the suicide attempts took place before treatment. It makes a big difference if they are comparing three years before transition to three years afterward or if they are comparing a lifetime before transition to the average 3 year follow-up period – a follow-up that took place 1-12 months after surgery.

In addition, the actual data on suicide attempts is confusing. In Table 3, the authors list the prevalence of suicide attempts as 9.4% at presentation and 9.3% at follow-up. However, in their discussion they say the suicide attempt percentages were 10.9% initially and 9.8% at follow-up.

Looking at Table 3,  there were 5 attempts in a group of 54 people which would give a percentage of 9.26%, a number that doesn’t match either of the ones given by the authors. In addition, there were 4 attempts in a group of 42 people which would give 9.52%, another number that doesn’t match.

The percentage they gave at baseline in Table 3 seems to be 5 out of 53 people, while the percentage at follow-up seems to be 4 out of 43. Perhaps one of the 54 people didn’t answer the question on suicide attempts in the first set of questionnaires. But where does the additional person come from in the second set of questionnaires? If they are including the person who committed suicide in the suicide attempts, wouldn’t the number of people used to calculate the percentage before treatment be 54 or 55, not 53?

None of this explains why they would list different numbers in their discussion. Perhaps there were some suicide attempts by the same person that were included in one set of numbers but not the others? The table talks about the prevalence of suicide attempts while the discussion talks about the percentage.

It would have been helpful if they had clarified this.