Transgender College Students More Likely to Struggle with Mental Health

14 September, 2019

As growing numbers of young people report struggling with mental health issues, colleges and universities across the United States are working to meet their students' needs.

But a new study suggests that one group of students is facing these issues more than any other: transgender students. And some experts worry that many schools may not be doing enough to meet their needs.

Transgender people are people who no longer identify with their sex from birth. They feel they are really members of the opposite sex. Many often change their name, appearance and even undergo medical treatments to help match, or keep up with, the way they feel.

In 2016, about 1.4 million Americans identified themselves as transgender. That number comes from the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles' School of Law.

Earlier research has shown a growing number of U.S. college students have reported depression, anxiety or other mental health issues in recent years. This latest study attempts to examine the specific problems transgender students face. The findings were published last month in The American Journal of Preventative Medicine.

In this August 23, 2007, file photo, a sign marks the entrance to a gender-neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont.
In this August 23, 2007, file photo, a sign marks the entrance to a gender-neutral restroom at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont.

Researchers looked at information from an internet-based survey called the Healthy Minds Study. It involved 65,000 adults who studied at 71 U.S. colleges and universities between 2015 and 2017. All of them were questioned about their mental health.

Out of that group, about 1,200 students reported having an alternate gender identity, meaning they do not identify with their birth sex. The researchers found that almost 80 percent of those students reported dealing with at least one mental health issue. For comparison purposes, 45 percent of cisgender students -- those who identified as their birth sex -- reported having a mental health issue.

Sarah Ketchen Lipson is an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. She was one of the lead researchers for the Healthy Minds Study. She also helped to prepare the report on transgender students.

Lipson argues one troubling thing about the findings is not just that transgender students were more likely to face mental health issues than other students. Transgender students also were more likely to face every single kind of mental issue raised in the study, especially thoughts of suicide and attempting suicide.

There are many reasons for this, she says. Some causes of mental health problems can affect transgender students long before they ever go to college. For example, there are higher rates of family abandonment and homelessness, notes Lipson.

In this photo taken Thursday, May 5, 2016 Joaquin Carca<I>&#</I>241;o is shown at his home in Carrboro, N.C. Carca<I>&#</I>241;o, a 27-year-old transgender man, works for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In this photo taken Thursday, May 5, 2016 Joaquin Carca&#241;o is shown at his home in Carrboro, N.C. Carca&#241;o, a 27-year-old transgender man, works for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Once they do enter college, transgender students still face difficulties that may not be as clear to cisgender people, she says. Many U.S. colleges and universities are at least somewhat supportive of gay and lesbian students. But there still barriers to transgender students feeling fully accepted.

This includes the fact that many schools force students to use their birth name or gender pronoun and make changing this information on school records difficult. Restrooms are meant only to be used by people of a specific sex. And while schools may have policies to prevent discrimination against gay or lesbian students, their policies often fail to identify transgender individuals. Lipson suggests that all of these seemingly minor issues can intensify existing mental health problems, if not create new ones.

The report's findings do not surprise Shane Windemeyer. He is the executive director of Campus Pride, one of the largest organizations supporting lesbian, gay and transgender college students in the United States.

Windemeyer notes while most colleges and universities employ trained specialists to support different minority groups, that is not the case for trans students.

"Trans folks are not even visible on many college campuses," he says. "They are not seen as a population to serve, still on many campuses."

Windemeyer adds that dealing with all of these mental health issues makes higher education seem much harder for these young people. Mental health problems make success in their studies that much harder, he says. What is worse, most schools do not even give students the choice to report their chosen sexual identity on official documents. So administrators have no way of knowing how well or how poorly they are serving transgender students, he says.

Windemeyer argues that to know how to better help such students, school officials must be open to understanding their needs. This comes through a willingness to make changes, when needed. But he and Lipson agree that it also comes from being better informed.

Schools must employ physical and mental health experts who understand the issues transgender students face. But they also must teach cisgender students, professors and employees to be accepting of and communicate with trans students in ways that make them feel welcome.

"Allyship requires education," said Lipson. "It requires knowledge. It's not enough to be well-intentioned.

I'm Alice Bryant.
And I'm Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

How are transgender people treated in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

anxietyn. fear or nervousness about what might happen

specificadj. special or particular

surveyn. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something

abandonmentn. the act of leaving and never returning to someone who needs protection or help

gayadj. used to describe a man who is sexually attracted to other men

lesbianadj. used to describe a woman who is sexually attracted to other women

pronounn. a word, such as I, he, she, you, it, we, or they, that is used instead of a noun or noun phrase

visiblen. able to be seen

campus(es) – n. the area and buildings around a university, college, or school

well-intentionedadj. having or showing a desire to do something good but often producing bad results