By Elliot Williams
In recent years, the number of people who identify as transgender and non-binary has grown significantly. This is related to increasing awareness and social support. Surveys in the United Kingdom show that approximately 5% of all LGBTQ youth identify as nonbinary. (Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities outside of the categories of male and female; other terms include genderqueer, agender, genderfluid, and bigender.)
Nonbinary individuals face unique barriers and discrimination when navigating a binary world. Forms and official documents usually have spaces only for either male or female gender markers. Restrooms are most always divided into men’s and women’s rooms. Many nonbinary individuals use gender-neutral pronouns such as the singular they or ze, or no pronouns at all, but many people find it difficult to use non binary people’s preferred names and pronouns.
Several recent studies have addressed the particular mental health issues faces by transgender and non binary people. Transgender individuals, for example, experience astonishingly high rates of mental illness and suicide. The 2015 US Transgender Survey found that the lifetime suicide-attempt rate in the transgender population (40%) is 9.5 times the rate in the general population (4.6%), and 39% of trans individuals indicated that they were currently experiencing serious psychological distress.1
Another recent study evaluated the mental health of 388 transgender young adults (ages 16 to 25) who were being assessed at the national transgender health service in the United Kingdom.2 These individuals had not initiated hormone therapy, though many were planning to undergo medical transition. Of these, 331 (85.3%) identified as binary (trans men or trans women) and 57 (14.7%) identified as non-binary.
The participants completed questionnaires about their sociodemographic information (age, ethnicity, employment status, civil status, living situation) and measures of health and well-being. The study compared several measures of anxiety, depression, self-injury, self-esteem, and perceived social support.
The results indicated significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression in the non-binary group in addition to significantly lower levels of self-esteem. However, the study found no significant differences in levels of social support overall or from family, friends, and significant others, or in rates of non-suicidal self-injury. These findings show that non-binary individuals do face some unique challenges that contribute to their mental health, but they may be due to pressures in the society at large and not necessarily tied to social support.
As our culture changes toward greater acceptance, hopefully the mental health of all transgender and nonbinary individuals will improve.