Tag Archives: my teen is transgender

Anorexia nervosa and gender dysphoria in two adolescents – Review of a case study

This is a case history of two Canadian teenagers with severe eating disorders. Both teens had had other psychiatric problems, and in one case the problems were quite severe.

Both teens developed gender dysphoria as time went on. In both cases, they were treated successfully for their disordered eating without being treated for gender dysphoria.

It is not clear exactly what the relationship is between the eating disorders and the gender dysphoria in these two cases.

It is important to remember that this is a case study of two people. So far, the main conclusion I can draw from cases studies is that each person’s story is different.

Case 1

The first patient identified as a very feminine gay male when he entered therapy. He was out to his friends and family and they were accepting of his sexual orientation. He was in a monogamous gay relationship.

The patient was 16 and for the past three years he had had “vomiting, food restriction, and body image distortion, perceiving his body to be overweight.” These problems became so severe that he was admitted to a hospital program.

He had insomnia, depression, problems concentrating, and a low energy level. In the past he had been diagnosed with anxiety. He had cut himself in middle school. His family’s history included substance abuse, depression, and bipolar disorder.

The patient had had body image issues since he was six. He “wanted to stay small, feminine, petite, lean, and thin. He reported that he also disliked his ‘wide torso and broad shoulders’ and wished his face shape was more round to be more in keeping with a feminine ideal.”

However, he did not wish to transition to be a woman. He did not want to physically be a female and was not upset about being a male. Rather he wanted to appear feminine and “assume the female role in a relationship.”*

After his hospital stay, the patient entered an out-patient therapy program that “focused on body and self-acceptance, along with enhancing self-efficacy. The family was involved in order to support his eating, and to accept his sexuality and gender identity.”

With this support “he was able to maintain his weight and left his relationship with his male partner who was emotionally abusive.”

Then, after about a year of treatment, the patient said he wanted to transition to living as a female. He did not want surgery, just blockers and hormones. At that point he had already regained a healthy weight and was not restricting his food. He was referred to a gender transition clinic at his request.

Because he was turning 18, his treatment at the pediatric eating disorder clinic ended.**

Case 2

The second patient was a 13 year old girl with a past history of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder from sexual abuse by her father. She had also self-harmed and considered suicide. Her family’s history included depression.

At the time she came to the clinic she had anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, excessive exercise, and OCD-type rituals related to germs (spraying her body with Lysol and excessive hand-washing). She was taking fluoxetine and olanzapine.

She had been hospitalized twice before for her eating disorder and had a “two year history of food restriction, a rigid eating schedule, and body image preoccupation…She described becoming distressed after eating foods she considered were unhealthy, which prompted her to forgo these foods entirely. She also reported excessive exercise due to a desire to be muscular.”

The patient refused therapy, but came in for medical visits and to see the psychiatrist. She had trouble eating more, so they asked her mother to help, but after six months the mother suggested residential treatment and the daughter agreed. The patient’s fluoxetine dose was increased.

The patient began to talk about wanting to be a boy. She also thought that sex was gross. She wanted to stay at a low weight in order to prevent breast growth and menstruation. Therapists raised the question of her trauma and how it might affect her feelings, but she did not want to discuss it.

“Mother was not accepting of the patient’s desire to be a boy and therapy with the psychiatrist was focused on mother taking a more neutral stance.”

After a year, and after she had been fully weight-restored for several months, she began to dress as a boy and use a boy’s name. She hated her breasts and sometimes hit them or thought about cutting out the fat, but she did not want to have surgery. She said that she no longer had eating problems, her only problem was wanting to be a boy. She wanted to take puberty blockers. Her mother was not in agreement and the girl dropped out of treatment.

Gender dysphoria and eating disorders in these case studies

It is difficult to figure out what these case studies mean. Rather than gender dysphoria causing an eating disorder, these patients seem to have developed gender dysphoria over time while recovering from eating disorders.

The authors suggest that as the patients regained weight, their bodies changed and this made the gender dysphoria intensify. I find this unconvincing.

In the first case, the patient was concerned about his wide shoulders and angular face; gaining weight would not have changed his shoulders or made his face more angular.

More importantly, the patient was clear at the beginning of treatment that he was a man and was not distressed by being male. Saying that he wanted to transition to a female but not have surgery was not a question of symptoms intensifying or becoming more prominent. It was a dramatic change – he went from not having gender dysphoria to having it.

In the second case, it seems likely that surviving childhood sexual abuse caused the patient’s disgust with sex and hatred of her breasts, as well as her depression, anxiety, and habit of spraying her body with Lysol.*** Both the eating disorder and the gender dysphoria could be interpreted as ways of dealing with these feelings.

Why or how exactly the patients developed gender dysphoria during this time is unclear. This question is an important area for future research.

The relationship between gender dysphoria and eating disorders is unclear in these two cases, but it looks like the eating disorders were not caused by the gender dysphoria. In the first case, the patient had the distorted perception that he was overweight; this is a symptom of anorexia rather than gender dysphoria. In the second case, the patient had been sexually abused as a child and had many psychiatric disorders, including OCD. Her eating disorder could be explained by a combination of trauma and genetic factors.

What is clear is that in these two cases, the patients were successfully treated for eating disorders before any gender issues were addressed.

Stay tuned for more case histories related to eating disorders and gender dysphoria.

Original Source:

Anorexia nervosa and gender dysphoria in two adolescents by Couturier J, Pindiprolu B, Findlay S, Johnson N in Int J Eat Disord. 2015 Jan;48(1):151-5.

 

* No, I don’t know what that means either.

** I can’t figure out the math here. He was 16, but after 11 months he said he wanted to be a girl. Then they say he left their program because he was turning 18 and had been having therapy continuously for 18 months.

*** No doubt there were genetic and hormonal factors as well, but I think it’s fair to point to the abuse as a cause.

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Review: Treatment of anorexia nervosa in the context of transsexuality: A case report

This is a depressing study. The main conclusion I get from it is that we need a better health care system.

The patient in this case is a 19 year-old American trans woman (born male) who developed a severe eating disorder when she decided to dress and live as a woman.

She became malnourished and ill and was hospitalized. During her treatment, she became upset as she gained weight and was afraid she would look masculine. She said she would be willing to gain a healthy amount if it would be on her hips and breasts.

When her testosterone levels returned to normal, hair began growing on her face and legs again. The patient began to exercise secretly and stopped gaining weight.

The hospital discussed gender transition with her, including the risks of treatment. She agreed to try hormone blockers and was given a three month dose of leuprolide. She was also given the androgen blocker spironolactone. After this, the patient progressed well and gained enough weight to leave the hospital.

During follow-up, the patient continued to gain weight until she began working. She lost weight while working, but was able to stabilize her weight with the help of a dietitian.

The patient was referred to an endocrinologist and a center for transgender youth for estrogen therapy and gender transition. She lost her health insurance coverage and could not afford to follow-up with transition.

Short-term hormone therapy helped this trans woman to recover from an eating disorder that made her seriously ill, but it’s unclear what will happen to her without health insurance.

It is important to remember that this is just a case study. This is only one individual; the relationship between eating disorders and gender dysphoria is complicated. We can only come to limited conclusions from any one person’s story.

I will be reviewing more case studies of eating disorders and gender dysphoria. At this point, the main conclusion I can draw is that each case is individual.

The hormone treatment in this case was not the standard cross-sex hormone treatment for people with gender dysphoria. We can not, therefore, draw conclusions about the standard hormonal treatment for trans women.

In addition, the hormone treatment the patient received in this case would not work for everyone. Leuprolide can decrease bone density which may be a problem for malnourished patients with eating disorders. In this case the doctors decided that it would be only used for a short time and the benefits outweighed the risks.

The doctors speculate about the possibility that the androgen blockers caused the patient to gain weight under the skin rather than at the belly and that this may have made her look more feminine.

It is also possible that leuprolide itself had an effect on the eating disorder. Leuprolide is a puberty blocker and eating disorders develop at puberty; perhaps when you block puberty, you block something that causes disordered eating. For example, estrogen may play a role in eating disorders and leuprolide blocks estrogen as well as testosterone.

The bottom line is that this trans woman developed a life-threatening eating disorder when she decided to live as a woman. During recovery she was distressed by the idea of looking more masculine as she regained a healthy weight. Puberty blockers and androgen blockers helped her to regain a healthy weight. Her weight was stable at follow-up, but she lost her health insurance and it is unclear what will happen to her.

More from the authors’ discussion of the case:

“Because her identity as TS [transsexual] and desire to appear more feminine were inextricable from her disordered eating, we felt that her recovery from her ED [eating disorder] would be aided by supporting her gender transition. After consulting the Endocrine Society Guidelines on Treatment of Transsexual Persons and discussing treatment possibilities with experts in transsexual youth, medical treatment options included cross-hormone (i.e., estrogen) therapy (which would also suppress testosterone release) and/or suppression of testosterone with GnRH agonists with or without the use of spironolactone as an antiandrogen agent. Treatment with cross-hormone therapy requires close follow-up with an endocrinologist familiar with this treatment; the children’s hospital to which DS was admitted is not a site experienced in cross-hormone therapy for transsexual youth. For this reason, GnRH agonist therapy with spironolactone was chosen to suppress testosterone at the level of the pituitary and delay resurgence of testosterone-related changes until the patient could access appropriate TS medical care and follow-up.

To our knowledge, there are no studies describing the patterns of weight gain in TS patients who receive antiandrogens in comparison to those who do not. However, studies of antiandrogen use for other medical conditions have shown that patients receiving antiandrogens tend to gain subcutaneous adiposity, as opposed to primarily intra-abdominal adiposity gained by patients not on antiandrogens. One could theorize that this subcutaneous pattern of weight gain would be more tolerable to MtF transsexual patients who strive for a more feminine appearance, which would support the use of GnRH agonists in these patients. This is an interesting area for future inquiry.

Possible adverse effects of GnRH agonists include decrease in bone density. This is of particular concern in malnourished patients, as malnutrition alone can adversely affect bone density. This potential drawback of GnRH therapy for DS was discussed at length as a team, and it was determined that the benefits of GnRH use outweighed the risks for two primary reasons: (1) the expected duration of GnRH therapy was brief, as it was being used as a bridge to initiation of cross-hormone therapy; and (2) suppression of DS’s testosterone level would likely facilitate her willingness to achieve weight restoration. In studies of malnourished patients with low bone density, weight restoration is the most important factor in improving bone density. Spironolactone was added to DS’s therapy regimen for additional anti-androgen effects. This medical plan enabled DS to continue to improve her nutritional status while avoiding the unwanted increase in testosterone and consequent physical changes.”

Original Source:

Treatment of anorexia nervosa in the context of transsexuality: A case report by Ewan LA, Middleman AB, Feldmann J. in Int J Eat Disord. 2014 Jan;47(1):112-5.

Eleven-year follow up of boy with Asperger’s syndrome and comorbid gender identity disorder of childhood – Review of a case study

This is a follow-up case study of a Japanese boy with both Asperger’s syndrome and gender dysphoria. It is the first long-term follow-up case study we have for a child with autism and gender dysphoria.

The young man no longer had gender dysphoria at the 11-year follow-up.

This is a highly significant case study; we know that most children with gender dysphoria desist around puberty, but we have had no data on what happens to children with both autism and gender dysphoria.

We need more studies to find out how common this is for children with autism and gender dysphoria.

In addition, we need studies to look at how persistence and desistence from gender dysphoria work for children with autism. Is the developmental process different from neurotypical children? How should parents, educators, and therapists work with children who have both autism and gender dsyphoria?

As the authors say, “Careful long-term clinical observation and further studies are needed.”

More details on the boy’s gender dysphoria:

[The boy came to the clinic at age 5 for behaviors related to autism] At the age of 7, he verbalized a strong aversion to being a boy and desired to be a girl. The boy behaved as if he were a girl and preferred to play with girls. Based on his clinical symptoms that lasted more than 6 months, the comorbid diagnosis of GID was made according to ICD-10 criteria.

After entering school, he exhibited behaviors such as using stationery with Disney princesses and dressing himself in clothes with flowers. He rarely went to the bathroom because he did not want to be seen urinating in a standing position. He skipped swimming classes at school to avoid exposing his chest. Only at his home, the boy wore skirts and makeup. At school, he was bullied by classmates because of his feminine behaviors. However, as school teachers were supportive and intervened appropriately, he never refused to attend school.*”

You can also read more about his earlier gender dysphoria in this previous case study.

More details on the change at puberty:

“At the age of 11, when puberty started, he became confused and repeatedly shaved his body hair. He tried to keep his voice tone high. However, as puberty progressed his gender dysphoria gradually alleviated.

In Japan, in general, junior high school students are required to wear school uniforms based on their biological sex, typically a skirt for girls and trousers for boys. They are also requested to obey school regulations related to length of hair, though the strictness is highly school-dependent. Our patient entered a public school in his residential district and had to behave as a typical male student. As a consequence, his gender-related manifestations fell below the threshold for the diagnosis of GID as of age 16 (the time of this writing).”

Note: This is not just a question of changes in behavior – the authors also say that his gender dysphoria gradually alleviated as he went through puberty. In addition, the authors got informed written consent before publishing this study.

 

*School refusal is a significant problem for students with gender dysphoria in Japan. (Bullying seems to be a problem everywhere.)

Original Source:

Eleven-year follow up of boy with Asperger’s syndrome and comorbid gender identity disorder of childhood by Tateno M, Teo AR, Tateno Y, in Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2015 Oct;69(10):658.

Review of Gender identity disorder in a girl with autism – a case report

This is a 1997 case of a Swedish teenager who had autism as well as symptoms of gender dysphoria, selective mutism, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Treatment with clomipramine decreased her symptoms of OCD and mutism, but not her symptoms of gender dysphoria.

Unlike this earlier case study of two American boys, this patient had clear symptoms of gender dysphoria:

“At the age of 8 years, B had started to claim that she was a boy. She refused to wear girls clothing and jewelery. B corrected persons if she was being addressed as ‘she’ and used her brothers’ shaving machine. At twelve years of age, B refused to visit the girls toilet but was forbidden by the parents to use the boys toilet. She has now been told to use the one and only gender neutral toilet in the school.”

And, at follow up:*

“She refuses to wear women’s clothes or to appear in swimsuit on the beach. Moreover, she claims that she is a boy, although she has discontinued the habit of correcting peers for addressing her ‘her’.”

The authors discuss three possible ways to interpret her symptoms of gender dysphoria and the implications for treatment.

First they suggest that the gender dysphoria could be part of the autism, specifically a ritualized and obsessive-compulsive behavior of a kind which is commonly seen in autistic syndromes.” 

The authors suggest that autism makes social and sexual relationships difficult, although people with autism are attracted to others. The expression of these feeling may be unusual. A minority of people with autism display a variety of paraphilic behaviour, e.g., exhibitionism, voyeurism and fetishism, and the desire for a beloved person may find expression in an obsessive manner.”

Gender dysphoria then might be “a paraphilic consequence of the impairment in social interaction” due to her autism. In that case the proper response would be “similar to the one employed when encountering other sexual manifestations with autistic people: a gradual firm correcting of the behavior in the direction of gender concordant behavior, but without anger or distress.”

The authors do not discuss the possibility that the gender dysphoria could be part of the autism in some other, non-sexual way. They should have.

Second, they suggest that the gender dysphoria might be seen as an obsessive-compulsive disorder and separate from the autism. In that case the proper treatment would be clomipramine.

There have been cases where patients with obsessional gender dysphoria were successfully treated with lithium carbonate, but the symptoms were different from the ones in this case.**

More importantly, in this case, treatment with clomipramine relieved the symptoms of OCD and mutism, but not the gender dysphoria. In fact, her symptoms of gender dysphoria increased, although it may be that they only became more apparent – for one thing she was talking more.

Third, they suggest that the gender dysphoria could be viewed as a disorder on its own and not a symptom of autism or OCD. In that case, the proper approach would be to treat both the autism and the gender dysphoria. When the teenager was of age,*** she would then be eligible for sex reassignment surgery.

They caution that “this patient suffers from a putative risk factor (autism), which has to be seriously considered before any intervention can be performed. “

As with other case studies, this is about one person. We can only draw limited conclusions from it.

It does show, however, that a person with autism can have symptoms of gender dysphoria. Further, in this case, the symptoms were probably not caused by OCD, as treatment for OCD did not relieve her gender dysphoria.

We could use further research to determine the relationship between gender dysphoria and autism and the best way to treat children and teenagers who have both.

Original Source:

Gender identity disorder in a girl with autism – a case report by Landén M., Rasmussen P. in Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1997 Sep;6(3):170-3.

*It’s not perfectly clear in the case report, but the therapists seem to have seen her initially at age 12 and the follow-up seems to have been at age 14.

**Skoptic syndrome: the treatment of an obsessional gender dysphoria with lithium carbonate and psychotherapy.

***The first reference I can find to using puberty blockers for teenagers with gender dysphoria is a case study of one teenager in 1998, a year after this case study. Thus at the time of this case study, medical transition would not have begun before age 18. (Pubertal delay as an aid in diagnosis and treatment of a transsexual adolescent.)

The development of gender identity in the autistic child – Extremely Brief Review

A 1981 study of autistic children found that gender identity was related to “mental age, chronological age, communication skills, physical skills, social skills, self-help skills and academic/cognitive skills.”

The study looked at 30 children and gave them the Michigan Gender Identity Test. The goal was to see if they could demonstrate a sense of gender identity.

This study is not available online, however, I was able to get some more information on it from another study (Case study: cross-gender preoccupations with two male children with autism.)

According to Williams et al., Abelson’s study indicated that “the establishment of gender identity in children with autism (as demonstrated by recognizing one’s own self as a boy or a girl) appeared to be dependent on mental age and cognitive abilities, and was correlated with the establishment of other social and self-help skills. Abelson expressed some optimism that many children with autism have the ability to recognize themselves as boys and girls, and thus form effective ties with the identified group, which leads to more acceptable social interaction patterns.”

Original Source:

The development of gender identity in the autistic child by Abelson AG in Child Care Health Dev. 1981 Nov-Dec;7(6):347-56.

Review of Clinical Management of Youth with Gender Dysphoria in Vancouver – Part I – Demographics

This article is a report on health care provided to youth with gender dysphoria at a clinic in British Colombia, Canada. I’m going to focus on just the demographics in this post and do another post later.

QUICK OVERVIEW

The clinic saw a dramatic increase in the number of their teenage patients from 2006-2011. This is similar to other clinics serving teenagers with gender dysphoria.

Most of their patients were trans men (born female). This is similar to the current situation at other clinics for teenagers, but different from the past at other clinics. It is also different from most European clinics for adults.

Their patients had other psychiatric diagnoses including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. The patients in this study had more psychiatric problems than teenagers studied at a clinic in the Netherlands.

7% of their patients had an autism spectrum disorder. This is similar to the results of a Dutch study of children and teens with gender dsyphoria.

Suicide attempts are a serious problem among their patients. 12% of their patients had attempted suicide before coming to the clinic; 5% attempted suicide after their first visit to the clinic. The decrease is encouraging, but clearly we need to do more to help patients during and after transition.

Some of their patients had to be hospitalized for psychiatric problems. 12% of their patients had been hospitalized before coming to the clinic, but only 1% were hospitalized after the first visit.  Again, we need to be sure to provide support during and after transition.

THE INCREASE IN TEENAGE PATIENTS

The clinic has seen a fairly dramatic increase in the number of teenage patients from 2006-2011. They went from fewer than 5 cases/year before 2006 to nearly 30 cases in 2011.

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Number of new patients with gender dysphoria seen in 1998-2011. MtF, black bars; FtM, hatched rectangles.

This parallels what has happened at a similar clinic in Toronto, Canada and a clinic in the Netherlands.

Unlike the other two studies, the majority of the patients at this clinic were always trans men (born female). In fact, before 2006 almost all of the patients were trans men. After 2006, the number of trans women patients (born male) began to increase. However, trans men still made up 54% of all the patients they saw between January 1998-December 2011.

This is different from the pattern found in the clinics in Toronto and Amsterdam. In those two clinics the patients were mostly trans women before 2006, but after 2006 they were mostly trans men.

It’s hard to know what these numbers mean because we don’t know how common gender dysphoria is among teenagers.

“The prevalence of adolescent-onset gender dysphoria is not known, and there are limited accurate assessments of prevalence of transgenderism in adults in North America. However, the prevalence of adults seeking hormonal or surgical treatment for gender dysphoria is reported to be 1:11 900 to 1:30 400 in the Netherlands.”

Does this increase reflect an increase in the number of teenagers with gender dysphoria? If so, why are the numbers increasing?

Alternatively, is this increase due to people with gender dsyphoria seeking physical transition at a younger age?

Statistics on most European clinics have shown many more trans women transitioning than trans men (the pattern is reversed in Japan and Poland). Now the statistics on Canadian and Dutch teenagers show more trans men transitioning than trans women.

Are there more trans men than in the past? If so, why?

Or are trans men transitioning at a younger age than trans women? But then why did the other two clinics treat more teenage trans women than teenage trans men in the past?

BASIC DEMOGRAPHICS OF THE PATIENTS IN THIS STUDY

The clinic at British Colombia Children’s Hospital saw 84 youth with a diagnosis of gender dysphoria from January, 1998 to December, 2011.

45 of the patients were trans men, 37 were trans women, and 2 were males who weren’t sure of their gender identity.

Two of the trans women had disorders of sex development – one had Klinefelter syndrome (XXY chromosomes) and one had mild partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (i.e. her body made androgens, but they didn’t fully affect her).

The median age at the first visit was 16.8, the range in ages was from 11.4 to 22.5.

At the first clinic visit, most patients were in school grades 8-10 (32%) or grades 11-12 (48%); 12% were in grades 5-7, and the remaining 8% were in college/university or no longer attending school.*

PSYCHIATRIC COMORBIDITIES

Diagnoses made by a mental health professional:**

35% of the patients had a mood disorder (20 trans men, 7 trans women and probably the two males with uncertain gender identity)

24% had an anxiety disorder (15 trans men, 4 trans women and probably one male with an uncertain gender identity)

10% had ADHD (2 trans men, 6 trans women)

7% had an autism spectrum disorder (2 trans men, 4 trans women)

5% had an eating disorder (2 trans men, 2 trans women)

7% of their patients had a substance abuse problem (2 trans men, 4 trans women)

26% of their patients had two or more mental health diagnoses (12 trans men, 9 trans women) and probably one male with an uncertain gender identity.

Suicide attempts:

10 of the teenagers attempted suicide before coming to the clinic (12%). 6 of them were trans men and 2 were trans women. Perhaps the other two were the two males who weren’t sure of their gender identity.

4 of the patients attempted suicide after the first visit to the clinic (5%). Three of them were trans men and one was a trans woman.

Psychiatric hospitalizations:

12% of the patients had been hospitalized for a psychiatric condition before coming to the clinic – seven trans men and three trans women.

One trans man was hospitalized for a psychiatric condition after the first visit to the clinic (1%).

Conditions requiring hospitalization included posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse, behavioral issues, psychosis, and anxiety.

Mood, puberty blockers, and hormones:

One trans woman and one trans man discontinued the use of a puberty blocker after they developed emotional lability (7% of the patients who took the puberty blocker). The trans man also had mood swings.***

One trans man had significant mood swings as a side effect of testosterone treatment. (3% of the patients who took testosterone.)

Two trans men temporarily stopped testosterone treatment due to psychiatric conditions – one was depressed and one had an eating disorder. (5% of the patients who took testosterone.)

One trans man temporarily stopped testosterone treatment due to distress over hair loss. (3% of the patients who took testosterone.)

Gender differences:

Trans men were significantly more likely to have depression or anxiety disorders than trans women. 44% of trans men had mood disorders compared to 19% of trans women. 33% of trans men had anxiety disorders compared to 11% of trans women.

There were no significant gender differences in other mental health issues.

27% of trans men had two or more psychiatric diagnoses compared to 24% of trans women. This seems surprising given that trans men were more likely to have mood and anxiety disorders.

The most important issue is the number of suicide attempts.

Why were there four suicide attempts after the first visit to the clinic?

Were the suicide attempts related to the two patients who developed emotional lability on blockers? or the trans man who developed mood swings after taking testosterone?

Were they related to the trans man who stopped taking hormones due to depression? Was he the same person as the trans man who developed mood swings on testosterone?

What about the trans man who stopped his hormones due to an eating disorder?

When were the suicide attempts? Were they before the patients got blockers or hormones? Did they happen after stopping hormones for any reason? Or were the patients already on hormones or blockers?

Could they have been prevented by more therapeutic support before treatment? during treatment?

Is there a way to identify which patients are at risk for suicide attempts during or after treatment?

It is encouraging to see that there were fewer suicide attempts after the first visit to the clinic than before, but it is not enough. We need to do more.

We also need more data on the decrease in the number of suicide attempts after coming to the clinic. Was it statistically significant? Was the time period before the first visit to the clinic equal to the time period after the first visit to the clinic?

Psychiatric comorbidities comparison

Compared to a clinic in the Netherlands, these patients were more likely to have mood disorders (35% vs. 12%), but about as likely to have anxiety disorders (24% vs 21%).

5% of the Vancouver patients had an eating disorder while none of the patients in the Dutch study did.

7% of the patients in this study had a substance abuse problem while only 1% of the patients in the Dutch study did.

26% of the patients in this study had two or more psychiatric diagnoses. In comparison, only 15% of the teenagers in the Dutch study had two or more psychiatric disorders.

Finally, the Dutch study found that trans women were at higher risk for having a mood disorder or social phobia while this study found that trans men were at higher risk for mood and anxiety disorders.

Why is the psychiatric comorbidity higher in the Vancouver patients?

The authors of the report suggest that it might be because the average age of their group was higher than the average age in the Dutch study – 16.6 year vs 14.6 years. It might simply be that older teenagers have had more time to develop mental health issues.

They also suggest that there could be differences in diagnostic criteria. Both groups seem to have been using DSM-IV diagnoses, but the Vancouver data was based on clinic notes while the Dutch data was based on interviewing parents. It may be that parents underestimate their children’s problems. For example, they might not realize that their teenager has a substance abuse problem or an eating disorder.

In addition, the Vancouver study includes all 84 patients their clinic saw between 1998-2011. In contrast the Dutch group invited 166 parents to participate in their study, but only 105 parents did so. It is possible that the 61 parents who did not participate had children with more problems, although the authors suggest that the inconvenience of travelling to the center was the main issue.

Finally, the Dutch group has 17 teenagers who were referred to the clinic but dropped out after just one session, “mostly because it had become evident that gender dysphoria was not the main problem.” These patients might have had more psychological comorbidity than others.

It is hard to compare this to the Vancouver clinic, however, because the Vancouver clinic’s focus is on endocrine care. 93% of the patients they saw had already been diagnosed with gender dysphoria by a mental health professional. Were there teenagers in Canada who discovered that gender dysphoria was not the main problem and did not go on to the clinic? If so we would expect the two clinics to have similar rates or psychological comorbidity. If not, we might expect a higher rate of comorbidity in Canada.

A final possibility is that the Canadian teenagers with gender dysphoria simply have more psychological problems than Dutch teenagers with gender dysphoria. Perhaps they experience more bullying and violence. Perhaps they had less supportive parents.

As usual, we need more studies. Why are the numbers of teenagers at clinics for gender dysphoria increasing? What is the prevalence of gender dysphoria among teenagers? How common are psychological comorbidities? Are trans men or trans women more at risk for depression and anxiety? What can we do to prevent suicide attempts after treatment begins? How can we better support patients with gender dysphoria during and after transition?

Original Source:

Clinical Management of Youth with Gender Dysphoria in Vancouver by Khatchadourian K, Amed S, Metzger DL in J Pediatr. 2014 Apr;164(4):906-1.

 

*This would suggest that 48% of the students were 16-17 years old, 32% were 13-15, 12% were 11-12, and 8% were 18-22.5.

** The table indicates that these were diagnoses made by a psychiatrist or psychologist. There were other diagnoses the authors didn’t include in the table: 1 patient with trichotillomania, 2 with borderline personality disorder, 1 with psychosis not otherwise specified, 1 with adjustment disorder, 2 with tic disorders, and 1 with oppositional-defiant disorder. I am not sure why these diagnoses weren’t included; perhaps they weren’t made by mental health professionals.

***The blockers being used were gonadotropin-releasing hormone analog or GnRHa.

Evidence for an Altered Sex Ratio in Clinic-Referred Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria – Review

This is a highly significant study showing that the population of teenagers referred for gender dysphoria is changing. It is noteworthy that this is happening in two different countries.

The sex ratio is changing:

The sex ratio of teenagers seeking help for gender dysphoria has changed at two clinics, one in Canada and one in the Netherlands.

Before 2006, more male than female teenagers sought transition at these clinics. Since 2006, they have seen more female teenagers than male teenagers.

Sex ratio for teenage patients at the Canadian Gender Identity Service:

  • 1999-2005 – 68% male, 32% female
  • 2006-2013 – 36% male, 64% female

Sex ratio for teenage patients at the Dutch Center for Expertise on Gender Dysphoria:

  • 1989-2005 – 59% male, 41% female
  • 2006-2013 – 37% male, 63% female

At the Canadian clinic, there was no change in the sex ratio of teenagers referred for psychiatric issues.* In both time periods, roughly two-thirds of their other patients were male.

According to the authors, “In adult samples [of transitioners], in almost all cases, the number of natal males either exceeds the number of natal females or the sex ratio is near parity.” Poland and Japan are exceptions; in those countries more females transition than males.

In addition, clinics for children with gender dysphoria have found that the number of males exceeds the number of females.

More teenagers are transitioning:

The number of teens of both sexes has increased over time, although the increase is larger for the female teenagers.

Increases at the Canadian clinic:

Female teenagers

  • 46 in 30 years (1976-2005)
  • 129 in 8 years (2006-2013)

Male teenagers

  • 80 in 30 years (1976-2005)
  • 73 in 8 years (2006-2013)

Increases at the Dutch clinic:

Female teenagers

  • 77 in 17 years (1989-2005)
  • 148 in 8 years (2006-2013)

Male teenagers

  • 109 in 17 years (1989-2005)
  • 86 in 8 years (2006-2013)

In other words, the Canadian clinic saw nearly nearly three times as many female teens in the past 8 years as they had seen in the previous thirty. The Dutch clinic saw nearly twice as many female teens in the past 8 years as they had seen in the previous seventeen.

Furthermore, “For many years in the Toronto clinic, the number of adolescent referrals was quite low. Between 1976 and 2003, for example, no more than five adolescents of one biological sex were assessed in a calendar year and, during this period, the number of males exceeded the number of females. Beginning in 2004, however, the number of adolescent referrals began to rise quite dramatically, which appears to be consistent with the observations of clinicians and researchers from other gender identity clinics.”

For earlier data on the increase in Canada, see this article.

Sexual orientation percentages have changed:

The Canadian clinic also looked at sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation of females:

  • 1976-2005 – 89% primarily attracted to females; 11% other
  • 2006-2013 – 64% primarily attracted to females; 36% other

Other could mean primarily attracted to males, bisexual, or asexual.

Sexual orientation of males:

  • 1976-2005 – 67% primarily attracted to males, 33% other
  • 2006-2013 – 44% primarily attracted to males, 56% other

Other could mean primarily attracted to females, bisexual, or asexual.

To put it another way, in the past most of the teenagers would have been gay if they weren’t transgender. If they transitioned, they would live their lives as straight people.

In 2006-2013 most of the male teenagers would have been straight, bisexual, or asexual if they weren’t transgender. If they transition, some of them will live their lives as lesbians.

One-third of the female teenagers in 2006-2013 would have been straight, bisexual, or asexual if they weren’t transgender. If they transition, some of them will live their lives as gay men.

What’s going on?

Why are we seeing more teenagers seeking help for gender dysphoria?

Why is the increase greater among female teens than males?

And why are we seeing a shift in the sexual orientation of these teens? Was it harder in the past to come out as transgender if you were seen as straight? Or is this a group of people who were less likely to have gender dysphoria in the past?

Has something changed in our environment that increases the number of people with gender dysphoria? What would affect more females than males? Why would it affect teenagers more than children (see this earlier article)? How would it fit with the changing percentages related to sexual orientation?

Is it just that there were always this many teenagers with gender dysphoria and now they are able to get care at an earlier age? How does that theory fit with the change in the sex ratio of teens applying to the clinic? with changes in their sexual orientation?

Clearly, we need more research to sort out these questions.

The authors speculate about possible explanations for the change in the sex ratio at their clinics.

They suggest that the general increase in patients might be due to a combination of destigmatization and more awareness of the biomedical treatments available to teens. However, they point out that this does not explain why more females would apply for treatment.

I don’t think we can know why the number of patients has increased without further research – research which is desperately needed.

The increase in the number of female patients at the Toronto clinic was not caused by a change in the severity of cases; they found that there was no significant relationship between severity of dysphoria and year assessed.

However, for male teens in Toronto, there was a weak correlation between severity of dysphoria and year assessed. “More recently assessed cases had moderately higher GD severity.” This only explained 6.7% of the variance. Therefore “it is unlikely that the recent inversion in the sex ratio can be accounted for by a substantive change in severity variation.”

On the other hand, they only have data on the severity of dysphoria starting in 2001 and the number of cases began increasing in 2004.

The change in the sex ratio was not due to females entering puberty at an earlier age; both clinics found no significant difference for the mean ages when females and males came to the clinic.

The sex ratio did not change due to the shift in sexual orientation. A logistical regression analysis did not find evidence for a sex x sexual orientation interaction.**

The authors suggest that perhaps the explanation for the change in the sex ratio is that it is harder for males to transition to a female role than for females to transition to a male one.

I find this unconvincing as this would have been true in the past when more male teenagers than females applied to their clinic. Nor would this hypothesis explain the shift in sexual orientation.

Here is their full explanation:

“Given that there is at least some overlap in the gender-variant developmental histories of early-onset individuals with GD and some gay men and lesbians, it might, therefore, be asked whether or not degree of stigmatization for gender-variant behavior might account for the recent inversion in the sex ratio of GD adolescents. It is well-known that cross-gender behavior in children is subject to more social stigma (e.g., peer rejection and peer teasing) in males than in females, in both clinic-referred adolescents with GD and in the general population[26–30]. Thus, it could be argued that it is easier for adolescent females to “come out” as transgendered than it is for adolescent males to come out as transgendered because masculine behavior is subject to less social sanction than feminine behavior. Some support for this was found in Shiffman’s [31] study of peer relations in adolescents with GD, in which adolescent males with GD reported more “social bullying” than adolescent females with GD. Given that a transgendered identity as an “identity option” has become much more visible over the past decade, it is conceivable, therefore, that such an identity option is easier for females to declare than it is for males because it does not elicit as much of a negative response. Thus, it could be argued that it is this sex difference in degree of stigmatization that accounts for the inversion in the sex ratio that we have identified in the two studies reported here. In other words, there are greater costs for a male to adopt a female gender identity in adolescence than it is for a female to adopt a male gender identity.”

A few more details about this study:

The first study looked at 328 teens (13-19) who were referred to the Toronto clinic between 1976 and 2013. The mean age at the time of referral was 16.66 years with no difference between the ages of males and females.

All of the teens met criteria for Gender Identity Disorder or Gender Identity Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. They were diagnosed using criteria in the relevant version of the DSM – this changed over time. The assessment of severity of dysphoria began in 2001.

The control group was 6,592 teens referred to their general clinic for psychiatric issues between 1999-2013. Eleven teens originally referred for psychiatric issues who were later referred to the Gender Identity Service were not included in this group.

The teens’ sexual orientation was determined by either clinical chart data or measurements on the Erotic Response and Orientation Scale and the Sexual History Questionnaire. This data was not available for five probands (aka people in this study).

The numbers for the sexual orientation of the teens at the Canadian clinic were:

1976-2005 (30 years)

  • 52 males primarily attracted to males
  • 26 males in the “other” category
  • 39 females primarily attracted to females
  • 5 in the “other” category

2006-2013 (8 years)

  • 32 males primarily attracted to males
  • 41 males in the “other” category
  • 82 females primarily attracted to females
  • 46 females in the “other” category

The clinic did not have data on the sexual orientation of five of the teenagers.

The second study looked at data on 420 teenagers (13 and up) referred to the Dutch clinic between 1989-2013.  Their mean age at the time of assessment was 16.14 and there was no significant age difference between males and females.

The second study did not include data on sexual orientation or a control group for comparison.

“The percentage of female adolescents from Amsterdam in the first time period did not differ significantly from the percentage of female adolescents from the Toronto clinic, and the percentage of female adolescents from Amsterdam in the second time period also did not differ from the percentage of female adolescents from the Toronto clinic, both χ2(1) < 1.”

This study is a follow-up to two earlier letters to the editor about changes in the teenage population at the clinic in Toronto: Is Gender Identity Disorder in Adolescents Coming out of the Closet? and Patterns of Referral to a Gender Identity Service for Children and Adolescents (1976–2011): Age, Sex Ratio, and Sexual Orientation.

The first letter discussed a rise in teenagers referred to the Canadian clinic between 2004-2007. The second letter discussed the continued increase in referrals from 2008-2011 and raises the question of a possible change in the sex ratio in 2008-2011.

Original Article:

Evidence for an Altered Sex Ratio in Clinic-Referred Adolescents with Gender Dysphoria by Aitken M1, Steensma TD, Blanchard R, VanderLaan DP, Wood H, Fuentes A, Spegg C, Wasserman L, Ames M, Fitzsimmons CL, Leef JH, Lishak V, Reim E, Takagi A, Vinik J, Wreford J, Cohen-Kettenis PT, de Vries AL, Kreukels BP, Zucker KJ in J Sex Med. 2015 Mar;12(3):756-63. doi: 10.1111/jsm.12817. Epub 2015 Jan 22.

* The Canadian clinic is the Gender Identity Service, within the Child, Youth, and Family Services (CYFS) at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. The clinic in the Netherlands is the Center of Expertise on Gender Dysphoria at the VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. This may explain why we have a comparison group for the Canadian patients with gender dysphoria, but not the Dutch ones.

**  “In the cohort examined in Study 1, perhaps it could be argued that, in the first time period, the greater number of biological males than biological females was an artifact of there being two prominent subtypes of GD (androphilic and nonandrophilic) in the former, whereas the latter were predominantly of only one subtype (gynephilic), but that this shifted in the second time period, with a greater number of females with a nongynephilic sexual orientation. However, the logistic regression analysis shown in Table 4 did not provide evidence for a sex × sexual orientation interaction. It only showed that a nonandrophilic or nongynephilic sexual orientation increased the odds that a proband presented in the second time period, but sexual orientation did not interact with probands’ biological sex.”