Dec 192016

Given recent events in US politics, today’s study was especially timely. I thought I’d move it up in the queue. Yes, there’s a queue. In today’s study, Owen-Smith et al tried to answer the question “Is there a relationship between depression in transgender people and tolerance of transgender people in their surrounding community?” Logically it makes sense. But we have very little data. Science needs data. So Owen-Smith et al surveyed trans people with the help of a local trans organization.

Dr William' Pink Pills, once marketed as a depression "treatment"

Dr William’ Pink Pills, once marketed as a depression “treatment”

To measure tolerance, they used a simple 1-5 rating scale. They also asked about mistreatment and discrimination in the past 12 months. For depression they used two different scales: the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CESD). The BDI was designed to detect and diagnose Major Depressive Disorder. In contrast, the CESD was designed to detect depressive symptoms, not necessarily the disorder. Between those two scales Owen-Smith et al captured both depressive disorder and depressive symptoms.

As with all studies they also asked about demographics. Age, education, race/ethnicity, and so on. Because this is a study of trans people they asked about hormonal and surgical status. If the participants hadn’t gotten hormones or surgery, Owen-Smith et al asked whether they wanted them.

What did they find?

In total, 399 people completed the study. 70% were trans women. 85% were white. 57% had completed college. 32% were currently receiving hormones and 7% had had surgery.

And 1 in 4 (~24%) said that most people in their area were tolerant of trans people. Roughly half (47%) of the sample had experienced abuse or discrimination. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no difference in abuse based on the tolerance of the participant’s area.

Roughly half of the group were depressed or had depressive symptoms. And this did differ based on the tolerance of the area. Trans people from less tolerant areas were more likely to have depression. In addition, the more abuse they had experienced the more likely it was that they experienced depression. Wanting or receiving hormone therapy was also associated with depression. In contrast, having a college degree was protective. Other factors like surgical status and race had no effect on depression.

What does this mean?

From this study, it seems that being in an area that is perceived to be intolerant of transgender people is associated with depression in trans people. Although this study can only show correlation, not causation we can potentially still make inferences. It may be that as areas become more tolerant, depression rates among trans people go down. Or that as more areas show their tolerance, depression rates will go down. Certainly this study seems to suggest that.

As always, this study has limitations. Its sample was probably not representative of the entire trans community, being mostly white well educated trans women. Results may be different in different groups of trans people.

Depression has serious effects on quality of life. Trans people are at high risk for depression already, with around half having symptoms. Compare that to roughly 4-9% (less than 1 in 10) of the broader population. And the worst outcome of depression, suicide, is high among trans people too. Anything that we can do to decrease suicide, we should do.

Want to read the study for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.