Sex, gender and gender identity: a re-evaluation of the evidence

Jul 25, 2020

In the past decade there has been a rapid increase in gender diversity, particularly in children and young people, with referrals to specialist gender clinics rising. In this article, the evolving terminology around transgender health is considered and the role of psychiatry is explored now that this condition is no longer classified as a mental illness. The concept of conversion therapy with reference to alternative gender identities is examined critically and with reference to psychiatry’s historical relationship with conversion therapy for homosexuality. The authors consider the uncertainties that clinicians face when dealing with something that is no longer a disorder nor a mental condition and yet for which medical interventions are frequently sought and in which mental health comorbidities are common.

  • Despite gender dysphoria no longer falling within the remit of mental illness in ICD-11, there is a substantial body of evidence of increased levels of mental illness among adults, usually attributed to societal responses to gender non-conformity or ‘minority stress’.
  • However, a potentially worrying picture regarding causes and consequences emerges from more recent research in this young, increasingly natal-female population.
  • Kaltiala-Heino et al examined referrals to an adolescent gender identity clinic in Finland over a 2-year period, finding high rates of mental health problems, social isolation and bullying
  • Although mental illness is overrepresented in the trans population
  • Transgender support groups have emphasised the risk of suicide. After controlling for coexisting mental health problems, studies show an increased risk of suicidal behaviour and self-harm in the transgender population
  • Puberty blockers are known to affect bone and, possibly, brain development. They put users at risk of developing osteoporosis46 and are associated with reductions in expected IQ.
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