Understanding mental health in the transgender community, especially in the midst of a pandemic

May 7, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer

For many transgender people (meaning those whose gender identity differs from that associated with their sex assigned at birth), mental health can be a particular struggle due to an oppressive social climate. Around 50% of transgender people experience elevated symptoms of anxiety and depression, and around 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide in their lifetime. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health struggles may be more pronounced as many transgender people, especially young people, are finding themselves stuck in isolation with unsupporitve families. Michigan State University psychologist Dr. Jae Puckett (pictured left), an expert on health and wellness for the transgender community, discusses reasons for these disparities and ways to better support transgender people’s mental health.

“If you have a friend or an acquaintance, this is a time to reach out, say hello, and  offer a virtual coffee or tea,” explains Dr. Puckett. “We have to find creative ways now to show support for each other.”


A discrimination-driven disparity 

According to Dr. Puckett, while transgender people experience significantly higher rates of mental health concerns, they start experiencing them at a much younger age as well. “This includes depression and anxiety symptoms,” says Dr. Puckett. “However, my lab’s research has shown that these levels were reduced when transgender people affirmed their gender.”

Much of this distress is driven by social marginalization and discrimination. Dr. Puckett’s research has shown that 3 out of every 4 transgender people in their study’s sample experienced discrimination in the past year, whether in the work place, in housing, using public restrooms or receiving health care. 

How mental health providers can be better allies

For many transgender people, trusting mental health care providers is a major barrier. Many transgender patients experience micro- and macroaggressions from mental health care providers, such as being called the wrong name, assigned the wrong pronouns or having their mental health concerns inappropriately and invasively linked to their gender identitiy.

Research completed by my colleagues, Dr. Debra Hope, Natalie Holt and their collaborators found that only about half of self-proclaimed transgender-competent mental health care providers were actually engaging in affirming practices in their paperwork or on their websites,” explains Dr. Puckett.

To improve mental health care for transgender people, Dr. Puckett suggests that providers seek training and education from transgender people directly who are interested in providing and being paid for this training, confront their own biases, and making sure that every step of the processes in their office or practice is affirming to transgender individuals.

How family and friends can support transgender mental health

“Our research has shown that the more social support a transgender person has, the better their mental health - especially when that support comes from an understanding and affirming family,” says Dr. Puckett.  

Dr. Puckett also emphasizes the importance for friends, family and allies to educate themselves on the experiences of transgender people, rather than rely solely on their transgender loved one(s) for guidance. “The emotional labour of constantly explaining your experience can be taxing and exhausting on transgender people,” they explain. 

Learn more about Dr. Puckett’s research here.