Tag Archives: 2013

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.

 

 

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Review – Diverging Eating Psychopathology in Transgendered Eating Disorder Patients: A Report of Two Cases

These are two somewhat unusual case studies from Singapore. Once again, there is a connection between eating disorders and gender identity. Once again, the connection is different from other case studies.

Case 1 – A Fluid Gender Identity and an Eating Disorder

In the first case, the patient had a fluid gender identity; sometimes he identified as a man and sometimes as a woman.

When he identified as a woman, he restricted his food and exercised excessively. He wanted to be thin and felt a kinship with emaciated women because they were infertile like him.

When he identified as a man, he tried to gain weight and muscles, but his exercise and eating habits were still pathological.

The patient was always distressed and dissatisfied with his body.

In other words, his gender identity affected the form his eating disorder took, but it was probably not the cause of it.

Case 2 – Changing Gender Identity, Changing Eating Patterns

In the second case, the patient identified as a woman when he first sought treatment for his eating disorder. However, after a year of treatment, the patient came out to his friends as gay. They were accepting of his sexual orientation and he became more comfortable with a male gender identity.

Similarly to the first case, when the patient wanted to be a woman, he tried to become thin, using restricted eating, excessive exercise, and purging. However, when he began to identify as a male, he tried to build up his muscles and he ate more.

The authors do not comment on whether or not this patient still disliked his body.

The authors suggest that gender identity influences the form of body psychopathology; constructing your gender identity is linked to constructing your body. However, they do not suggest that gender dysphoria caused the eating disorders or that treating the gender dysphoria will cure them.

These two cases support their theory, but it is important to remember that this is a case study of two people. So far, the main conclusion I can draw from various cases studies is that each person’s story is different.

From the Discussion:

“The present case series describes two transgendered biological males seeking treatment for eating disorders, whose intermittent periods of endorsing both masculine and feminine gender identities impacted significantly upon their experience of eating disorder psychopathology. The two patients indicated that during periods of endorsing a feminine gender identity, they experienced an elevated definite drive for thinness, such that their body image psychopathology was oriented towards weight loss, reporting dietary restriction and cardiovascular exercise to lose weight. Furthermore, both patients reported that during periods of masculine gender identity endorsement, their body image psychopathology was oriented towards weight gain with an emphasis on “buff muscularity,” reporting increased food intake and muscle building exercise regimens.

This case series draws attention to the potential role of masculinity and femininity in body image psychopathology amongst males. Both patients depicted reported that the variation in their eating disorder psychopathology was concordant with their preferred gender identity, suggesting that the construction of one’s gender identity and the construction of one’s body may be interrelated.”

More details on the gender shift in the second case study:

At the beginning of treatment,

“…he reported homosexual sexual orientation and described privately wondering whether he was born into the wrong gender from approximately age 6. He reported periodically ‘trying to like girls’ due to the cultural and legal ramifications of homosexuality in his country of origin [probably China], and further stated that on many occasions his sexual orientation resulted in him feeling victimized and bullied. Patient Z reported significant discomfort with his sexual orientation, although he did report a female gender identity, which allowed him to experience his secretive same sex relationships as heterosexual given his assumed female identity.”

Before treatment, when he was restricting his food and purging,

“Patient Z reported immense discomfort surrounding his emerging sexual orientation, and reported strongly endorsing a female identity which enabled Patient Z to experience his same-sex attraction as heterosexual, alleviating the subjective distress and internal conflict he experienced in his homosexual urges. Patient Z described his role models to be female supermodels, stating that he aspired to their thin and feminine frames, adding that his gaunt appearance brought about by dietary restriction ‘accentuated his cheekbones’ and helped him identify with his female role models. Patient Z reported egosynotonicity of eating disorder symptomatology, allowing him to feel ‘small and more like a woman’ which he demonstrated in a collection of drawings depicting emaciated women, which he described as his ideal body.”

But then,

“Approximately 12 months into treatment Patent Z revealed his sexuality to his friends, whose acceptance and support reportedly alleviated the internal conflict he experienced around his same-sex attraction. As a result Patient Z reported reduced ambiguity surrounding his gender identity, describing more comfort in identifying with a male gender identity. During this same period, Patient Z developed a desire for muscular development as opposed to emaciation, and started a muscle building training regimen. Furthermore, this period was also characterized by Patient Z consuming greater quantities of food in support of his desire for greater muscularity.”

Original Source:

Diverging Eating Psychopathology in Transgendered Eating Disorder Patients: A Report of Two Cases by Murray SB, Boon E, Touyz SW in Eat Disord. 2013;21(1):70-4.

Patterns of Referral to a Gender Identity Service for Children and Adolescents (1976–2011): Age, Sex Ratio, and Sexual Orientation – Review

This is a follow-up to an earlier letter to the editor calling for research and discussion on the subject of teenagers with gender dysphoria. The authors had seen a sharp increase in the number of teenagers referred to their Toronto clinic between 2004 and 2007.

You can read about some new, related data here.

In this letter, the authors report that:

Cases of teens with gender dysphoria are still increasing.

Between 2008-2011 the number of teenagers referred to their clinic increased even further.

Based on their graph, before 2000, they saw fewer than 20 teenagers in a four year period. From 2004-2007 they saw about 55 teens and from 2008-2011, they saw about 95. In other words, the number of teen patients they saw more than quadrupled.

usmt_a_675022_o_f0001g (1)

By my calculations, about two-thirds of their teenage patients in the last 36 years came to the clinic between 2000 and 2011; over half came to the clinic in the last 8 years between 2004 and 2011.

In contrast, the number of cases of children with gender dysphoria increased sharply in 1988-1991, but has been reasonably stable since then.

Looking at their graph again, between 1988 and 2011 they saw 75 to 90 children in a four year period. The children who came to the clinic between 2004 and 2011 only make up 29% of the child patients they’ve seen in the past 36 years.

In 2008-2011, the number of teenagers at their clinic was larger than the number of children for the first time ever.

From 1976-2004, the number of children at their clinic was much higher than the number of teens. The number of teens increased greatly after 2004, but was still lower than the number of children at their clinic.

The sex ratio of their teenage patients may be changing.

For teenage patients, the sex ratio was close to even, ranging from 1.03:1 boys to girls in 2004-2007 to 3:1 in 1976-1979. There were two time periods when they saw more female teenagers than males: 1988-1991 and the most recent group in 2008-2011.

***Spoiler alert – a 2015 study found that the sex ratio has indeed changed from more boys to more girls. This was true for both this clinic and a Dutch one. More later.***

It is important to remember that the numbers of both male and female teenage patients increased starting in 2004.

The increase in female teenagers is much more striking. Based on the graph below they went from fewer than 10 patients every four years prior to 2000 to nearly 60 patients from 2008-2011.

However, male teenage patients also increased. They went from about 5-15 patients every four years prior to 2000 to about 35 patients from 2008-2011. In 2004-2007 the number of male and female teenage patients was nearly equal.

usmt_a_675022_o_f0002g

The authors also discuss the pattern of sex ratio by age. Putting the data from different time periods together, from ages 12-16, there were slightly more boys than girls. However, at age 17-18, there were more females than males, and at age 19-20, the sex ratio shifted again to 2.4 boys to 1 girl.

Sexual orientation

The authors had data on sexual orientation for 98% of the teenagers they saw.* Of these 76% of their female teenage patients were sexually attracted to females while 56.7% of their male teenage patients were sexually attracted to males.**

The sex ratio for child patients is different than for teenage patients.

The overall sex ratio for children was 4.49 boys to 1 girl. For 3 year olds, the sex ratio was 33 boys for every girl.***

From 1976-1996, over 75% of their child patients were boys, from 2001-2011 the percentage hovered around 75%.

What does this mean?

We don’t know why more teenagers are seeking help at this clinic. Are there more teenagers with gender dysphoria than in the past? If so, why? What would make gender dysphoria increase among teenagers and not among children? Are people with gender dysphoria simply able to get help at an earlier age?

As always, we need more research!

The authors provide some interesting insights:

“Regarding the increase in adolescent referrals, it is, of course, not clear if it reflects a true increase in prevalence (which can only be established via epidemiological studies) or if it simply reflects a greater willingness on the part of youth to come out as transgendered, perhaps because of the influence of social media in which there are dozens, if not hundreds, of websites and blogs that assist youth in understanding their own identity and its concomitant struggles. We have been impressed, for example, in recent years with youth describing to us that they never realized that their feelings could be named in a formal way (gender identity disorder, transgender, trans). One might infer that the Internet has made much more visible terminology used in technical journals. 

Another parameter that has struck us as clinically important is that a number of youth comment that, in some ways, it is easier to be trans than to be gay or lesbian. One adolescent girl, for example, remarked, “If I walk down the street with my girlfriend and I am perceived to be a girl, then people call us all kinds of names, like lezzies or faggots, but if I am perceived to be a guy, then they leave us alone.” To what extent societal and internalized homonegativity pushes such youth to adopt a transgendered identity remains unclear and requires further empirical study. Along similar lines, we have also wondered whether, in some ways, identifying as trans has come to occupy a more valued social status than identifying as gay or lesbian in some youth subcultures. Perhaps, for example, this social force explains the particularly dramatic increase in female adolescent cases in the 2008–2011 cohort.

Another factor that has impressed us in accounting for the increase in adolescent referrals pertains to youth with gender identity disorder who also have an autism spectrum disorder. As noted by others (de Vries, Noens, Cohen-Kettenis, van Berckelaer-Onnes, & Doreleijers, 2010), many clinicians are now reporting a co-occurrence of these two conditions.

More than 10 years or so ago, it was rare in our clinic to see an adolescent with gender identity disorder who also appeared to have an autism spectrum disorder. It is possible, therefore, that the apparent increase in the number of adolescents who present with a co-occurring autism spectrum disorder is contributing to the increase in the number of referrals. Over the past decade, a great deal of media attention has been given to the use of hormonal therapy to treat gender dysphoria in adolescents, including the use of “blockers” to either delay or suppress somatic puberty (Cohen-Kettenis, Steensma, & de Vries, 2011; Zucker et al., 2011). In the province of Ontario, its health care system relisted sex reassignment surgery as an insured medical treatment in 2008 after having been delisted in 1998 (Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care Processing Sites, 2008; Radio Canada, 2008). Perhaps the availability again of insurance coverage has led to more adolescents seeking treatment. Whatever the explanation for the increase in adolescent referrals, it appears that gender identity disorder in adolescents has come out of the closet, although there may be different closets from which to come out.”

A few more details about the data:

The children were significantly more likely to be living in two-parent homes than the teens (66% versus 46%).

Most of the patients were white; 80% of the children and 76% of the teens.****

The study included 577 children (3-12 years old) and 253 teens (13-20 years old).

The study excluded “26 boys referred for fetishistic cross-dressing and referred adolescents who were diagnosed with transvestic fetishism (without co-occurring gender dysphoria), gay youth, and youth who were ‘undifferentiated'”.

Original Source:

Patterns of Referral to a Gender Identity Service for Children and Adolescents (1976–2011): Age, Sex Ratio, and Sexual Orientation by Wood H, Sasaki S, Bradley SJ, Singh D, Fantus S, Owen-Anderson A, Di Giacomo A, Bain J, Zucker KJ. in J Sex Marital Ther. 2013;39(1):1-6.

* 248 teenagers out of 253 total.

** The authors classified the teenagers as homosexual or nonhomosexual in relation to birth sex.

***It may be that parents are more worried about boys who are gender non-conforming than girls so more boys are referred to the clinic. By adolescence the teenagers might play more of a role in coming to the clinic.

**** Yup, we need more research on people with gender dysphoria who aren’t white.

You can read more in the follow-up study, Evidence for an Altered Sex Ratio in Clinic-Referred Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria.