Practicing Mindfulness and Acceptance Within Gender Identity

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Trans and gender-expansive individuals face depression, anxiety and other mental health issues at alarmingly high rates. This tragic reality stems from the distress caused by society’s oppression and lack of acceptance of gender non-conforming individuals.

According to a 2015 study from the National Center on Transgender Equality, 40 percent of respondents had attempted suicide, which was nearly 9 times the attempted suicide rate of the U.S. population. The report identifies a long list of evidence of hardships and barriers faced by transgender people on a daily basis that could lead them to attempt suicide. Despite the hardships that trans people face, the NCTE report also noted that responses from respondents did show some positive impacts of growing visibility and acceptance of the transgender population in the U.S. Interventions to increase societal acceptance of trans and genderqueer individuals are vital to improving their health and quality of life.

gender identity mental health

Early acceptance from family members, therapists, schools and communities can radically improve a trans child’s sense of safety and ability to develop an authentic self. Click To Tweet

Investigations into pathologies connected to trans and genderqueer children show they are tied to the experience of rejection, not their internal experience of gender. Early acceptance from family members, therapists, schools and communities can radically improve a trans child’s sense of safety and ability to develop an authentic self.

A psychological theory about child development posits young people can only develop an individual sense of self if caregivers meet their needs. These include the accurate reflection of your own emotions back at yourself (known as mirroring), having a positive role model to look up to and having someone to whom you feel similar and can relate. In the current oppressive social climate toward gender nonconforming individuals, these needs are often not fulfilled for trans or genderqueer children.

That the lack of acceptance comes at a price is not only documented by statistics showing high rates of depression and suicide among trans people; it’s also shown by inverse statistics in which trans children whose families and communities affirmed and accepted their gender experience depression at comparable rates to cisgender people.

While much of the popular conversation surrounding mental health posits brain chemicals as the source of suffering, this framing eliminates personal and societal responsibility for the way we treat and oppress people, which directly impacts mental health. More empathy and acceptance of people who don’t meet arbitrary gender norms is directly connected to trans people’s ability to thrive and survive.

gender identity mental health

If you are a therapist, parent or educator, you are in a uniquely valuable position to affirm the gender of trans children in your care. Gender Spectrum has identified key ways therapists can do this.

First, strengthen your understanding and education about trans issues to be in a position to provide specific, tailored assistance. Elements of gender affirmative care include acknowledging a trans child’s experience of gender as valid, allowing room for and a safe environment for a child’s gender identity to emerge and develop over time, and reframing the child’s gender as normal and OK in contrast to negative messaging and stereotyping they may have received from society.

Parents and school systems also play vital roles in setting tones of acceptance. The USC Rossier online ME in school counseling program created a guide to help educators and caregivers talk to children about gender identity. The toolkit addresses questions about appropriate ages to discuss gender identity with children (In short, no, it’s not too early) and stresses the importance of affirming a child’s identity by using preferred pronouns. It also has suggestions to create a more inclusive environment in classrooms. Tactics include avoiding grouping boys against girls, for instance, in a recreational football game.

Unfortunately, trans visibility is only just starting to increase after centuries (if not millennia) of oppression. Because of the narrow-minded culture and the trauma of experiencing a dissonance between internal self and the way you are perceived by others, many gender-expansive individuals deal with body dysphoria. As mindfulness work increases, some are exploring the way trans individuals can benefit from this type of embodied practice. At the Gender Identity Center of Colorado, Whit Ryan hosts a meditation practice targeted to trans and non-binary people that offers a space for connection and processing of emotional difficulties through the body. He has, for example, worked with attendees to process anxiety in the chest and pelvic areas.

Living in a society that oppresses your authentic self has myriad consequences for physical and mental health. Gender non-conforming individuals continue to be at increased risk for a variety of stress and anxiety-induced ailments. It’s imperative to properly frame the high rates of depression among trans individuals as the result of a rejecting culture.

It’s imperative to properly frame the high rates of depression among trans individuals as the result of a rejecting culture. Click To Tweet

Quality of life should be a right we are concerned with ensuring for all citizens, regardless of race, class or gender identity. Empathetic and accepting treatment of gender non-conforming individuals is not just an abstract moral good. It is a concrete way to lessen the daily struggles and trauma oppressed individuals face and work toward a more equal and just society.

This post was written by Alexis Anderson, a Sr. Digital PR Coordinator covering K-12 education at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, teaching, mental health, and occupational therapy programs. 

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