Transgender adolescents are nearly five times more likely to have suicidal thoughts than their non-transgender and heterosexual peers, according to a new study.
The research, published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, used data from Statistics Canada’s 2019 Canadian Health Survey on Children and Youth to assess the risk of suicide among transgender and sexual-minority youth in Canada. The data included responses from more than 6,800 adolescents aged 15 to 17.
Of those respondents, 1,130 indicated some degree of same-gender attraction, 265 were unsure of their attraction and 50 reported transgender identities.
The study found that nearly 50 per cent of transgender respondents said they had seriously thought about suicide in the past 12 months, compared to 10.4 per cent of cisgender heterosexual respondents. (Someone is cisgender when their gender identity corresponds with whatever sex they were assigned at birth.) Nearly 6.8 per cent of adolescents included in the study had attempted suicide in their lifetime.
Ian Colman, a professor at the school of epidemiology and public health at the University of Ottawa, who led the research, said the study also found that transgender adolescents were 7.6 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their cisgender and heterosexual counterparts.
Young people in Canada are more likely than their elders to report being transgender or non-binary. According to 2021 census data, almost 1 per cent of young adults aged 20 to 24 identified as such. The rate among people born between 1981 and 1996 was 0.51 per cent, and the rate among those born between 1966 and 1980 was just 0.19 per cent.
Dr. Colman said the new research confirms what he had already suspected about transgender youth and suicide.
“I wouldn’t say this is very surprising, it is though really dismaying and concerning. It just highlights that this is a population that needs support,” he said.
“The strength of this study is that the data were collected by Statistics Canada as part of a large health survey, and Statistics Canada takes great pains to make sure that their samples are population representative, so we can feel confident that we are getting the true picture of gender minority populations.”
Dr. Colman said the research’s main shortcoming is that it included only a relatively small number of transgender respondents. He added that it ideally would also have examined other factors, like race and socioeconomic status.
Fae Johnstone, another of the study’s authors, said she was similarly unsurprised. She is executive director of Wisdom2Action, a consulting firm that supports civil society organizations and governments on LGBT inclusion and other issues.
“We’ve always known in trans and gender-diverse communities that our young folks in particular face higher rates of suicide ideation and suicide attempt,” she said.
“We know that trans kids are more likely to be homeless or street involved, and more likely to face bullying and peer-related violence, but young trans folks and gender non-conforming kids are also more likely to get harassed in public, and that sends a social message of shame and guilt that teaches folks not to love themselves.”
Anti-trans hate is on the rise around the world, Ms. Johnstone added.
“My biggest hope from this data is that it shows policy-makers, politicians and governments that trans people can’t just be a footnote in mental health policy or funding,” she said.
Karen Blair, an assistant professor of psychology at Trent University who was not involved in the study, said more awareness, acceptance and knowledge of transgender and non-binary people is needed.
“When part of your identity brings on experiences of stigma, this can really exacerbate the process of developing an authentic self,” she said.
“Any teenager might deal with experiences of loneliness, anxiety, or depression as they go through these crucial years, but trans, non-binary and gender creative youth might find themselves doing so with less support and understanding from those closest to them.”
But, she added, “We also need to ensure that we don’t only send the message that to be queer is to face more challenges.”
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