Category Archives: Mental Health

Long-term follow-up of individuals undergoing sex reassignment surgery: Psychiatric morbidity and mortality – Review of Abstract

The authors of the study suggest that gender reassignment surgery may increase psychiatric problems for some people and decrease them for other people.

The study looked at the medical records of 104 people who had sex reassignment surgery in Denmark between 1978 and 2000.

They found that there was no statistically significant difference between the number of psychiatric diagnoses before surgery and after surgery.

In addition, the people who had diagnoses before surgery were different from the people who had diagnoses after surgery. Only 6.7% of the group had a psychiatric diagnosis both before and after surgery while 27.9% of the group had a psychiatric diagnosis before surgery and 22.1% had one afterwards.

According to the authors “this suggests that generally SRS may reduce psychological morbidity for some individuals while increasing it for others.”

The study also found that:

Psychiatric diagnoses were over-represented both before and after surgery (i.e. the group had more psychiatric issues than the general population).

Trans men (born female) had a significantly higher number of psychiatric diagnoses overall; there were no other statistically significant differences between trans men and trans women.

At the same time “significantly more psychiatric diagnoses were found before SRS for those assigned as female at birth.”

10 people had died at an average age of 53.5 years.

Questions for the Future

The most important question is, of course, how can we make sure that SRS does not increase psychiatric problems in the future?

Is it a question of better screening to identify gender dysphoria?

Do people need more support and counseling after surgery?

Should some people transition without getting surgery?

Were poor surgical outcomes linked to psychiatric problems?

Could low hormone levels after surgery cause problems for some people?

Were people’s problems caused by the surgery or some other aspect of transition that happened after surgery?

Or to put it another way, how do we identify which people might benefit from surgery and which might be hurt by it? or do we need to make other changes to prevent new psychiatric diagnoses after surgery?

It would also be helpful to know more about the specific psychiatric diagnoses before and after surgery. Are we seeing increases in depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or what?

How did the patients whose mental health improved compare to those whose mental health got worse? Were they older or younger? What were their life circumstances?

What does it mean that trans men had more psychiatric diagnoses before surgery? Was surgery more beneficial for them than for trans women or did trans men just have more psychiatric problems overall?

How long after surgery did people get the new psychiatric diagnoses?

More about the study:

Only the abstract of the study is available online, so it is hard to interpret some of their results.

The abstract gives few further details on their methodology, but a similar study of physical illnesses and death looked at the records of 56 trans women (born male) and 48 trans men (born female). The follow-up period began when people received permission for surgery. The group used in the other study represented 98% of all people who officially had SRS in Denmark from 1978 to 2000.

Original source:

Long-term follow-up of individuals undergoing sex reassignment surgery: Psychiatric morbidity and mortality by Simonsen RK, Giraldi A, Kristensen E, Hald GM in Nord J Psychiatry. 2016;70(4):241-7.

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Suicide is not a Footnote

I am fed up with studies that treat suicide like a footnote.

You are not talking about “patients” or “participants” or “transsexuals.” You are talking about people.

If someone commits suicide during the study, I want to read about it in the abstract, not buried in the methods section. So somebody died and didn’t participate in your study – that is not the important story.

Why did they commit suicide? When did they commit suicide – before or after medical treatment? What medical and therapeutic treatments were they getting? Were there any underlying mental health issues that weren’t being treated? Did they need more support during and after transition? Were they properly diagnosed? Did they have depression? Were they trauma survivors?

You don’t get to ignore their death in your conclusions. The person’s death is part of your results. Suicide needs to be reported in your results and it needs to be discussed.

Most of all, you need to talk about what we can do to reduce the number of suicides and suicide attempts among transgender people.

 

To my readers, if you or someone you love is thinking about suicide:

Sources of Help and Information:

Trans Lifeline for trans people:

  • US number: 1-877-565-8860
  • Canadian number: 1-877-330-6366
  • and their website.

The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ youth (US) – 1-866-488-7386 and their website.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (US): 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and their website.

Samaritans in the UK and their website.

The International Association for Suicide Prevention – their website has an interactive map with phone numbers and locations of crisis centers.

What to Do

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Two Years After My Suicide Attempt, I’m Still Living and Sharing

“Waking up two years ago gave me opportunities, some of which seem obvious but some of which I’m still discovering. I have the opportunity to continue the life I began and do the things I want to do. I have the opportunity to offer help to people who would have helped me if only I had shared what was going on.”

Read more here.

From Maria Shriver’s blog, Powered by Inspiration.

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.

 

 

Help for Eating Disorders

You are not alone. Help is just a call or click away.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, we are here to help.

  • Call our toll free, confidential Helpline at 1-800-931-2237
  • Click to chat with a Helpline volunteer (click at left on their website)

We are here every  Monday-Thursday from 9:00 am – 9:00 pm and Friday from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm (EST). Our helpline volunteers will be there to offer support and guidance with compassion and understanding.”

From the National Eating Disorders Association website. More information at their website.

You can leave messages at their helpline when they are closed.

A 25-Year-Old Affirmed Male with Multiple Comorbid Conditions – Review of Case Study

This is a case study of a trans man (born female) with many serious mental health problems, including an eating disorder. He was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and the trauma seems to have been at the root of his problems.

He had “an eating disorder with restriction and purging, substance dependence, gender dysphoria, panic disorder without agoraphobia, PTSD, dissociative disorder, learning disorder, sleep disorder, mood disorder, borderline personality disorder, and pain disorder.”

This case study does not make any connections between his eating disorder and his gender dypshoria. Given the abuse and the multiple comorbidities, it is unlikely that the gender dysphoria caused the eating disorders.

The authors suggest that both the eating disorder and the gender dysphoria were caused by the early trauma.

“the underlying foundation of these multiple diagnoses is the presence of early developmental trauma to the emotion regulation system — which manifests as physical and emotional pain with impulsive and maladaptive attempts to engage in behaviors to meet personal needs, including safety. Zanarini and colleagues performed a study examining Axis I comorbidity in patients with BPD [borderline personality disorder] and identified high rates of comorbid PTSD. They also observed that meeting criteria for multiple Axis I disorders predicted meeting criteria for BPD.”

Treatment focused on the most severe issues first; suicidal thoughts and behaviors, then purging behaviors, urges towards substance abuse, self-harm, self-care, and interpersonal behavior. The patient was treated with dialectical behavior therapy.

Medical transition came later and was not part of the recovery from the eating disorder. However, at the time the patient entered therapy, he had already taken a male name and was dressing and living as a male.

This case study has some similarities to the case of a teenage girl* who developed gender dysphoria while being treated for an eating disorder. The teenage girl was also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse with multiple mental health problems: anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, excessive exercise, and OCD-type rituals related to germs (spraying her body with Lysol and excessive hand-washing). In addition, she had a past history of PTSD, OCD, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.

These two cases suggest that in some cases, gender dysphoria is not the main cause of an eating disorder. Rather, trauma causes multiple mental health issues.

There are two more case studies of transgender people with eating disorders who were survivors of child abuse. They suggest different possible conclusions, however.

A trans woman whose eating disorder began when she started to live as a woman. Her goal was to have a more feminine shape. Transition and hormones did not cure the eating disorder, however. She had been physically and sexually abused as a child.

A trans woman whose identical twin also had an eating disorder. Both twins were feminine in behavior from a young age and both were sexually attracted to men. Both survived an abusive father who threatened them with assault and death. However, one was a trans woman and one was a gay man.

In the first case, the eating disorder seems to be closely connected to the gender dysphoria since it started when she began to live as a woman. She clearly describes wanting to look more female. The abuse may have affected her, but gender dysphoria was also a factor.

In the second case, the eating disorder seems to have been caused by a combination of genes and environment, since both twins had anorexia but only one had gender dysphoria.

We’re left with the possibility that the answer is different in different cases. Sometimes severe childhood trauma may cause multiple mental health problems that include an eating disorder. Sometimes a combination of gender dysphoria and early childhood trauma may contribute to an eating disorder. And sometimes the same genes and environment will produce two people with similar eating disorders but different gender identities.

Of course, these are only four case studies. We can’t draw conclusions from them about all transgender people with eating disorders. Most of the case histories I have found don’t mention child abuse. Many of them suggest connections between gender dysphoria and eating disorders.

What we can see from these cases, however, is that for some transgender people with eating disorders, gender dysphoria is not the main or only cause of their eating disorder. Therapists should keep this in mind when treating transgender patients for eating disorders.

And, as always, we need more research.

Original Source (full text):

A 25-Year-Old Affirmed Male with Multiple Comorbid Conditions by Katharine J. Nelson, MD; S. Charles Schulz, MD in Psychiatric Annals, February 2012 – Volume 42 – Issue 2: 48-51.

UPSETTING MATERIAL ABOUT ABUSE BELOW

A few additional details of the case history:

The article provides an interesting discussion of diagnosing and treating a patient. The full text is available online without cost, but here are a few details of the case:

The trauma the trans man survived involved “repeated episodes of sexual violence perpetrated from age 4 to 9 years old by a childhood friend’s father in the neighborhood.”

“The patient believed he had suffered multiple head injuries related to physical violence and asphyxiation in the context of sexual trauma, but was unclear if he had lost consciousness because of head injury or because of psychological dissociation during these events.”

He had “a history of heavy chemical use, starting with first use of alcohol at age 7, which continued through age 23. He also used diet pills starting at age 14, followed by heavy use of cannabis at age 15, and cocaine and other narcotics, including pills and heroin, at age 18 years.”

The patient had severe pelvic floor dysfunction which caused him a great deal of pain. It took him a while to get this diagnosed correctly.

“The patient was born and raised as a female, but in retrospect realized he did not fully identify with either the male or female gender. In the previous 2 years, he had decided to openly adopt a male gender, name, and manner of dress. He had the intention of pursuing hormone therapy and, eventually, chest reconstruction.”

Treatment and afterwards:

“Suicidal thoughts and behaviors were identified as the highest-priority target; after 6 months, these thoughts and behaviors had resolved. The patient was engaged in therapy and did not require significant emphasis on therapy interfering behaviors; therefore, quality-of-life interfering behaviors could be targeted, including purging behaviors, urges to use substances, self-injury, self-care, and interpersonally effective behaviors with friends, family, and other medical professionals. He graduated phase 1 of DBT therapy and proceeded to phase 2 to continue working on healthy emotional experiencing and management of trauma sequelae.

The patient graduated college with a high grade point average and went on to pursue master’s level education. He underwent sex hormone treatment and chest reconstruction.

He developed additional medical comorbidities, including insulin resistance and adrenal insufficiency. These medical conditions necessitated moving back in with his parents, resulting in significant familial conflict. The patient’s therapist made a referral for family therapy through our department, which was coordinated among treatment providers. The patient is enthusiastic about the progress made in treatment and states he often wonders if he would be still be alive without the intervention he received. Over the course of 3 years, his medications were all tapered to discontinuation, with the exception of prazocin 10 mg at bedtime for nightmares, ramelteon 8 mg for sleep, and clonazepam 1 mg three times a day, which was continued to assist with pelvic musculature functioning.”

Review of Disordered Eating and Gender Identity Disorder: A Qualitative Study

This is a qualitative study of eating disorders and gender dysphoria. Its strength is that the authors asked transgender people themselves what they thought. Its weakness is that we can’t draw many conclusions from it, although we can use it to find questions for future research.

Limits of the Study

We can’t use it to estimate the prevalence of eating disorders among trans people. The participants were recruited for a study of body image and eating behaviors. Transgender people with eating disorders may be more likely to volunteer for such a study.

We can’t use it to collect statistics on trans people with eating disorders because the data is not uniform. Participants were asked open-ended questions, so we can’t be sure what it means when they give different answers. For example, one person talked about wanting to control his body. Did other participants agree with him and not think to mention it or did they just not care about controlling their bodies?

We can’t look at how individual eating disorders and gender dysphoria developed over time because we don’t have case histories of the participants.

The participants in the study were not formally diagnosed with eating disorders; the data on their eating is self-reported, although convincing. It is not clear from the study how many of the participants currently had symptoms of disordered eating.

On the other hand, we do have some data we can use from this study.

Data from the Study

The authors found 14 people with gender dysphoria who reported current or previous disordered eating and/or excessive exercise.*

About half of the transgender people with an eating disorder talked about gender dysphoria causing their eating disorder and about half did not.**

Other explanations given for the eating disorder included self-control, feeling like an outsider, struggle for autonomy, feeling that one did not deserve to eat, psychological stress and strain, and a belief that being thin would make sexual situations easier.

Explanations related to gender could be classified as efforts to suppress gender or efforts to accentuate gender.

A few participants talked about the relationship between disordered eating and transition. Some saw hormones as positive and some saw them as negative:

Two trans men (born female) said that hormone therapy had helped them to stop caring about their weight.

Two trans women (born male) said that hormone therapy had made them gain weight. (One of the women who said this was waiting for diagnosis and hormone treatment; presumably she was self-medicating.)

One woman who was considering gender reassignment said that breast reduction surgery had helped her stop caring about her weight.***

There was no clear relationship between medical transition and current scores on subscales of the Eating Disorder Inventory-3.**** The three people with the highest total scores included:

Two trans women who had had genital surgery and were on estrogen – the surgery means that their bodies were no longer producing much testosterone; and

One trans men who was taking testosterone and waiting for a mastectomy.

You can read further details of the study below the footnotes.

Future Research

The data we can get from this study isn’t much, but it does point to some important questions for future research. Many of these are questions raised by case studies as well.

What do transgender people see as the main cause of their disordered eating? Do they see it as being about issues like control, autonomy, and stress or do they see it as being related to gender dysphoria? Or both?

Is affirming the desired gender or suppressing biological sex a more important factor in disordered eating? Do trans men and trans women give different answers to this question?

Are there differences between the group of people who see their eating disorder as being related to gender issues and those who do not? Do they have different patterns in terms of when their symptoms of disordered eating developed, what their symptoms looked like, or what happened when they transitioned?

Do people’s perceptions of what causes their disordered eating match reality? Do they have relatives with eating disorders, for example? Were there other factors in their life that might have contributed to the eating disorder? When did the eating disorder develop?

How does the relationship between the eating disorder and gender dysphoria affect recovery from the eating disorder?

When did the disordered eating begin in relation to the gender dysphoria? How did the two conditions develop over time?

Does transition increase or decrease symptoms of disordered eating? Does it have no effect?

Are the effects of transition on eating disorders different for trans men and trans women? In this study, two trans men with eating disorders felt hormone therapy helped their recovery, while two trans women said it made them gain weight.

Trans women and trans men are not getting the same treatment for gender dysphoria; how does that affect eating disorders? In this study, trans men had mastectomies while trans women had genital surgery. Mastectomies might be more important in issues related to body shape. In addition, hormone therapy would have involved completely different medications for trans men and trans women.

Do the hormones themselves play a role in eating disorders, either reducing or increasing symptoms?

Comparison to Case Studies

Prevalence of eating disorders in trans men versus trans women

In this study, slightly over half of the participants were trans men. Trans women were not more likely to have eating disorders than trans men. In contrast, the case studies are overwhelmingly of trans women with eating disorders. What is the real prevalence of eating disorders among transgender people? Is there a difference in the rates among trans men and trans women or not?

It might be that selection bias means that case studies of trans women with eating disorders are written up more frequently. Eating disorders are relatively rare among biological males and potential authors of case studies might notice them more. Conversely, it might be that trans men were more willing to volunteer for the study than trans women or that a group of trans men encouraged each other to participate.

The link between eating disorders and gender dysphoria

Some case studies suggest that factors other than gender dysphoria are central in the development of disordered eating. We have the case of the identical twins who both had anorexia, although only one was transgender. Similarly, the trans man with an eating disorder in this case study had two cousins with eating disorders and this boy’s mother had had anorexia. Then we have the case of the teenage survivor of sexual abuse with PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, an eating disorder, and a history of self-harm. The teenager developed gender dysphoria while being treated for her eating disorder; it may be that the trauma was the most important factor in all of her problems.

On the other hand, we have five cases of trans women whose eating disorder began when they decided to live as women, reported in this case study, this one, this one, and this one. In addition, in this case study, one trans woman’s eating disorder seems to have begun at the same time as depression related to her gender.

We also have a couple of case studies where trans men say that their disordered eating was a desire to get rid of feminine features; in this case his curves, breasts, hips, and feminine face and in this case his period and feminine shape. However, in the first case, the trans man also had two cousins with eating disorders.

There is also this somewhat unusual case of an underweight boy with poor eating habits who developed severe anorexia after a doctor suggested that he take testosterone to induce puberty. Again, in this case, his mother had also had anorexia.

Intriguingly in these two cases, gender identity seemed to affect the patient’s symptoms, but not the underlying dissatisfaction with their bodies. In the first case, the patient had a fluid gender identity; when he lived as a man he tried to gain weight and muscle, when he lived as a woman he tried to lose weight. His habits were always pathological and he always hated his body. In the second case, the patient initially identified as a woman. After coming out as gay to supportive friends, he identified as a gay man; as a woman he dieted and as a man he tried to gain muscles.

Of course, since they are case studies, there could be some selection bias. People might be more likely to report cases where gender identity seemed to have affected the eating disorder – or they might be more likely to report cases that are unusual like identical twins and fluid gender identity.

This is where this study is helpful; we see that a number of transgender patients did not bring up gender issues when asked what they thought caused their eating disorders. We also see that some patients thought gender issues were important causes. And now we need another study to find out what that means.

The effect of transition on gender dysphoria

This study found one person considering transition who said that breast reduction surgery had helped her with her disordered eating,

In contrast, there are three individual case studies where sex reassignment surgery contributed to an eating disorder. This trans man began binging and purging for the first time after having his breasts, uterus, and ovaries removed. One of the trans women in this study had an eating disorder in adolescence; her symptoms returned after sex reassignment surgery 20 years later. Finally, this adolescent trans man recovered from an eating disorder and transitioned; after his mastectomy, he began to relapse and ten months later he returned to the clinic for eating disorders.

In the qualitative study two trans men said that hormone therapy had helped them with their eating disorders, while two trans women said hormones had made them gain weight.

On the other hand, two trans women and a trans man who were taking hormones had relatively high scores on three subscales of the Eating Disorder Inventory-3. The two trans women had already had genital surgery (which would have included removing their gonads) while the trans man was waiting for a mastectomy.

Looking at the case studies, there were two trans women with eating disorders who were already on hormones (here and here), although one of them does not seem to have been interested in recovering from her disordered eating. There was one trans woman who believed that transition had cured her, but she was severely underweight, even more so than she had been before transition.  In addition, the patients listed above who had problems with their eating after sex reassignment surgery were also on hormones, although it could still be that hormone therapy initially helped them.

On the other hand, there was one trans man whose eating disorder was cured by taking testosterone. In addition, taking puberty blockers helped this adolescent trans woman restore her weight, although, of course, puberty blockers are not the same as hormone therapy for trans women or trans men.

In many of the case studies, patients recovered from disordered eating before they were referred to a gender clinic.

It seems clear that we can not rely on transition to cure an eating disorder and at times it may exacerbate it. Therapy for eating disorders should be aimed at the eating disorder and patients with gender dyshporia and eating disorders should have follow-up care for the eating disorder after they transition.

You can read further details of the qualitative study below the footnotes.

Original Source:

Review of Disordered Eating and Gender Identity Disorder: A Qualitative Study by Ålgars M, Alanko K, Santtila P, Sandnabba NK in Eat Disord. 2012;20(4):300-11.

 

*I count 16 people with an eating disturbance or excessive exercise, according to their Table 2. I’m not sure if this is a typo or if two people reported symptoms that were not considered severe enough to be an eating disorder.

**It is difficult to tell from the study how many people identified gender dysphoria as a cause of their eating disorder. The study talks about 5 people who were suppressing their gender and 3 people who were accentuating their gender, but the two groups overlap. They quote one person twice for both suppressing and expressing their gender. There is no list of which people talked about which possible causes for their gender dysphoria, so there could be more overlap.

Based on the quotes they include, at least seven and possibly eight people mentioned something to do with gender as a possible cause of their eating disorder. This means at least six or seven did not.

It is also possible that some of the people who mentioned gender dysphoria as a possible cause of their eating disorder also mentioned other possible causes. Or that some people did not answer the question.

*** There was also one trans woman (“Julie”) who felt that genital surgery had made her less self-conscious about her body and her weight. However, she had never had any symptoms of an eating disorder or excessive exercise. Her case does not answer the question of how eating disorders may be related to gender dysphoria, especially since there is a group of people with eating disorders and gender dysphoria who did not say that gender issues affected their eating.

****The participants were tested on the Drive for Thinness, Bulimia, and Body Dissatisfaction sub-scales of the Eating Disorder Inventory-3.

 

More Details on the Study:

Eating Disorders and Gender Dysphoria

The authors found 14 people with gender dysphoria who reported current or previous disordered eating and/or excessive exercise. Looking at their Table 2, I count 16 people with disordered eating and/or excessive exercise, but perhaps there were two cases where the symptoms were not severe enough to be considered disordered.

Of these 14 people, seven or eight mentioned gender as a cause of their eating disorder or excessive exercise (see footnote above as to why the number is unclear). This included 6 or 7 trans men and 2 trans women.

Six or seven people did not mention gender as a cause of their eating disorder or excessive exercise.

Other explanations given included self-control, feeling like an outsider, struggle for autonomy, feeling that one did not deserve to eat, psychological stress and strain, and a belief that being thin would make sexual situations easier.

“I have always wanted to feel that I can control my body.”

“I have felt like I was an outsider since I was little. I have felt inadequate, like I don’t belong to the group, and because of that any criticism about what was most essential to me, my body and how desirable I am, was a really serious thing to me.”

“At that age [eating] was really the only thing I could have an influence on.”

Explanations related to gender fell into three categories –

  • suppressing gender (“The background of that crazy weight loss was that my curves would disappear”),
  • accentuating gender (“It is easier to make a man’s body look feminine if you’re a bit thinner”), and
  • enhanced masculinity (“[After losing a lot of weight] I could buy pants at the men’s department, and they fit in a certain way, the right way, as I see it.”)

Four trans men mentioned suppressing gender, one trans man mentioned accentuating gender, and one trans man mentioned enhancing masculinity. It is possible that there is some overlap between the categories.*

One trans woman mentioned accentuating gender and one trans woman mentioned both accentuating and suppressing gender as possible causes of disordered eating.*

Eating Disorders and Transition

The authors identified sixteen people who had already begun hormone therapy and/or had surgery. In addition, one trans woman seems to have been self-medicating and one trans man had already had breast reduction surgery. Of these 18 people:

Two trans men said that said that taking testosterone had helped them recover from their eating disorder; they stopped caring about weight gain.

Two trans women said that taking hormones caused weight gain and in one case, problems with blood sugar. It is not clear exactly which medications they were talking about – estrogen and blockers or just estrogen. One of the trans women who said this was waiting to begin hormone treatment, so presumably she was self-medicating.

One woman who was considering gender reassignment said that breast reduction surgery had helped her recover from her eating disorder. She no longer cared about weight gain after the surgery.

One trans woman said that after genital surgery she felt comfortable in her body and didn’t care about any fat. However, she had never had any symptoms of disordered eating or excessive exercise, so this may not be relevant to people with eating disorders.

Current Scores on Subscales of the Eating Disorder Inventory-3 (EDI-3)

The study does not separate data on current symptoms of disordered eating and excessive exercise from data on past symptoms. However, the study participants completed three subscales from the Eating Disorder Inventory-E (EDI-3): Drive for Thinness, Bulimia, and Body Dissatisfaction.

We can not use the scores on three subscales of the EDI-3 to diagnose an eating disorder, but they may give some indication of how the participants are doing now.

Of particular concern are “Sue,” “Martha,” and “Leo.” Sue and Martha are trans women who had had genital surgery and were on hormones. Leo is a trans man who was on hormones but was waiting for a mastectomy.

Sue scored 16 on the drive for thinness scale, 17 on the bulimia scale, and 21 on body dissatisfaction. Martha scored 9 on the drive for thinnness scale, 9 on the bulimia scale, and 22 on body dissatisfaction. Leo scored 14 on the drive for thinness scale, 11 on the bulimia scale, and 34 on body dissatisfaction.  The three of them had the highest total scores compared to any of the other study participants.

Gender Identity Disorder and Anorexia Nervosa in Male Monozygotic Twins – Review

This is a fascinating study of identical twins; one had gender dysphoria and one did not. Both twins developed anorexia.

Both twins were feminine in behavior from a young age and both were sexually attracted to men. Both had a difficult childhood with an abusive father.

Both twins were underweight at birth and needed intensive care. Both had developmental delays.

However, one twin considered himself to be a gay man while one identified as a straight woman.

In this case study, gender dysphoria did not cause the eating disorder.

This case highlights the importance of other factors in eating disorders, including genes, hormones, and trauma.

It raises the question; how important is gender identity as a cause of eating disorders?

This case is different from other case studies where gender dysphoria seems to be intimately linked to the eating disorder.

We can’t look at these two patients and conclude that gender dysphoria never contributes to eating disorders. However, this case is a good reminder to be cautious about drawing conclusions from other case studies. Perhaps there are just some people with eating disorders who also have gender dysphoria. Or perhaps there is some other factor which causes both eating disorders and gender dysphoria.

As always, we need more studies.

More about the Patients:

Eating Disorders

Twin A was diagnosed with AN-purging subtype and Twin B was diagnosed with AN-restricting subtype.

Twin B developed an eating disorder at an earlier age, but Twin A was more underweight and had a more disturbed perception of his body. Furthermore, Twin A was hospitalized for his eating disorder and Twin B was not.

Neither twin seems to have been able to maintain a healthy weight.

At age 16 Twin A “was admitted to a children’s hospital because of AN. Later, he was hospitalized in the psychiatric inpatient unit for adolescents. At first, his eating behavior was restrictive. Then he reported intermittent vomiting (AN binge-purge). His weight decreased to 46 kg/1.79 m (body mass index [BMI] ¼ 14.3 kg/m²). His ideal weight was 44 kg according to a BMI of 13.7 kg/m² , which shows his severe disturbance in body perception. During hospitalization, his behavior was sometimes aggressive. He was emotionally unstable, depressed, and was rarely able to engage in stable relationships. Despite strict dietary rules, he achieved a maximal weight of 55 kg (BMI ¼ 17.2 kg/m²). Soon after being discharged, his weight decreased again.”

Twin B’s eating disorder began at a younger age. “In puberty, he developed severe underweight. At the age of 13, he was 42 kg/1.58 m (BMI ¼ 16.8 kg/m² ). When he was referred to our outpatient unit at the age of 18½ years [for gender dysphoria], his weight was 48 kg and his height was 1.76 m (BMI ¼ 15.5 kg/m² ). He denied deliberate dieting, binging, or purging. Although he regarded himself as too slim, he did not manage to gain weight. Further medical checkups revealed no somatic cause for his underweight. An osteodensitometry yielded an osteopenia of the spine.”

Gender Identity

Twin A was a gender non-conforming gay male:

In childhood, he preferred girls’ games and toys (Barbie dolls) and was very close to his twin brother. His sexual feelings were always for males. Although he started cross-dressing at the age of about 16 years, his gender identification was always male. He considered himself to be a homosexual.”

Twin B was a trans woman:

“As far as he could remember, he had felt he was a girl, preferring girls as playmates and had started cross-dressing at nursery school. In gymnastic lessons, he refused to change with the other boys because he was ashamed of his body. Eventually, he refused to attend sports lessons at all. When he was 9 years old, he started to grow his hair. His class mates seemed to accept him as a girl. When he started to work as a hairdresser, he tried to correspond to the male gender role and did not cross-dress. However, at his professional school and in his free time, he continued to cross-dress. His employer, who realized he was transsexual, permitted and encouraged him to cross-dress at work, which consequently allowed him to live as a young woman. Sexually, he was always attracted to men. However, in contrast to his brother, he never considered himself to be homosexual and viewed this attraction as ‘‘heterosexual.’’ Until this point, he had not engaged in sexual relationships either with men or with women.”

Twin B requested hormonal and surgical sex reassignment.

Childhood

The twins grew up together in a small Swiss city without any other siblings. Their childhood was not easy:

“[Their father] was very authoritarian. He could not accept the sexual orientation and the cross-dressing of his sons and threatened them with assault and even with death.

…In family conflicts, [their mother] took a position between her husband and her sons. At a family consultation, she appeared emotionally unstable.”

Birth 

The birth was a difficult one. Both twins were underweight and spent time in intensive care.

“the mother had been admitted to a hospital with hypertension, edema, and proteinuria at 38 weeks of gestation. The vaginal delivery was induced because of maternal preeclampsia. Twin A weighed 2.17 kg at delivery and his Apgar score was 9/9/9. Because of perinatal acidosis and hypotonia, he was kept in the incubator for 3 days. He was diagnosed with a subependymal hemorrhage with ventricular invasion. Twin B’s birth weight at delivery was 1.95 kg and his Apgar score was 7/9/9. Both twins were admitted immediately to the neonatal intensive care unit.”

Developmental Delays

They both had developmental delays:

“In early childhood, Twin A showed a developmental delay in language and motor skills and had deficits in cognitive and verbal skills. He was socially isolated and his behavior was often aggressive.”

“…Twin B had delays in language and motor development during early childhood. He showed the typical symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. The parents refused further assessment and treatment.”

Other

Twin A was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and subnormal verbal intelligence.

Twin B was diagnosed with gender dysphoria.

There is no obvious pattern to any of this. Twin A was larger at birth, but had more problems right after birth. Both had developmental delays, and Twin B may have had ADHD as well. Both were feminine in their behavior, but only Twin B developed gender dysphoria. Both were sexually attracted to men. Twin B developed an eating disorder earlier, but Twin A’s eating disorder seems more severe. Twin A has borderline personality disorder and Twin B does not.

Discussion

The authors offer two possible hypotheses about the twins’ gender identity.

Perhaps the twins are on a continuum of gender non-conformity where gender dysphoria is at the extreme end.

Alternatively, perhaps gender dysphoria* in childhood is inherited, but the later development of gender identity is determined by environmental factors and psychiatric comorbidity.

“In childhood, both Twin A and Twin B showed gender atypical behavior and stereotypical feminine traits and interests. In adolescence, their sexual orientation was revealed to be homosexual. Twin A developed effeminate homosexuality with male gender identity, whereas Twin B stabilized his cross-gender identity. Although Twins A and B are concordant for GID in childhood and sexual orientation on a categorical level, they are now discordant for TS. On a more dimensional level, one could argue that Twins A and B show an opposite sex-dimorphic behavior and that they arrived at different points of a continuum. The fact that GID in childhood is a predictor for later homosexuality and TS could support the dimensional view. It could be hypothesized that GID in childhood is mainly hereditary, whereas the development of the later phenotype of the gender identification is determined by environmental factors and psychiatric comorbidity, as any difference between MZ twins provides strong evidence for the role of environmental influences.”

The authors also discuss the relationship between gender and eating disorders. However, they don’t address the fact that the two twins had different gender identities, but both had eating disorders.

Perhaps both gay men and trans women are vulnerable to eating disorders for different reasons, but perhaps genes, hormones, and environment matter more than gender identity.

“Homosexual men seem to have an increased vulnerability to eating disturbance and body dissatisfaction (Williamson & Hartley, 1998), are more dissatisfied with their weight (French, Story, Remafedi, Resnick, & Blum, 1996), and are more concerned about their attractiveness (Siever, 1994). Male AN is associated with disturbed psychosexual and gender identity development, which supports the hypothesis that males with atypical gender role behavior have an increased risk of developing an ED (Fichter & Daser, 1987). Furthermore, feminine gender traits are discussed as a specific risk factor for ED in men and women (Meyer, Blissett, & Oldfield, 2001). Although the role of sexual orientation as a risk factor for ED is well documented, there is hardly any literature about GID and ED. For men with disturbance of gender identity in addition to the aforementioned factors concerning sexual orientation, underweight could be a way to suppress their libido and the expression of their secondary sexual characteristics and, at the same time, correspond to a female ideal of attractiveness (Hepp & Milos, 2002).”

We need more research!

“Further research in eating behavior and body dissatisfaction in patients with GID could provide more insight into the role of gender identity in the development of ED and lead to a better understanding of ED as well as GID.”

 

* In this case, gender non-conformity might be a more fitting phrase. Twin A does not seem to have ever wanted to be a girl.

 

Original Source:

Gender Identity Disorder and Anorexia Nervosa in Male Monozygotic Twins by Urs Hepp, Gabriella Milos, and Hellmuth Braun-Scharm in Int J Eat Disord. 2004 Mar;35(2):239-43.