Transgender youth at risk of suicide and mental health issues

While one in 10 teenagers in South Africa lose their lives to suicide, one in three transgender youths attempt suicide at least once as they battle depression, stigma and discrimination.

While transgender youth already face physical changes and the emotional turmoil of adolescence, they are at high risk of mental illness with at least a third having gone through one suicide attempt.

The spotlight has been turned on transgender teens in recent years, with the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) this week picketing against a draft policy on gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools.

Studies have shown that more than a third of transgender youth have a history of self-harm behaviour and a third report at least one suicide attempt. As it is, one in 10 teenage deaths in South Africa is a result of suicide, said psychiatrist and former president of the South African Society of Psychiatrists Professor Gerhard Grobler.

But, he said, identifying as transgender was not a mental illness or disorder.

Gender dysphoria however is a state of “intense distress that can arise from the sense of a mismatch between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s lived gender identity” which can be treated through counselling, he said.

“Youth identifying as transgender may experience anxiety and depression, increasing their risk of self-harm due to stigma, lack of acceptance, a feeling that they have to hide their true selves, low self-esteem, social isolation and, at its worst, bullying, harassment and abuse,” Grobler said.

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This was experienced by Ayanda Nino Maphosa, a 26-year-old artist who was born female and had to face stigma from his family when he announced he identified as a man.

Maphosa said due to not having information to understand how he was feeling about himself and hating how he looked in the mirror, he tried to commit suicide in 2017.

“I remember taking off my clothes and I couldn’t look myself in the mirror. I felt there was no other way to transition. I didn’t know the language of what was happening to me. I just wanted to be a man so bad but society said I am a woman. I grew up in a Christian family who said being homosexual is demonic and Satanic”

“So, I took 20 sleeping pills because I believed maybe if I died, I could come back as a man,” he said.

After having “top surgery” last year to remove his breasts, Maphosa said he now feels more confident.

“I could finally breath and I have so much confidence and love myself so much. My advice to transgender youth is to seek therapy and counselling if they have no support,” Maphosa said.

It is important for parents of children who display gender non-conforming attributes and behaviours to understand and accept that this was not “just a phase”, said Grobler.

“Adolescents in particular are grappling with separation and independence, forming their own identities and autonomy. No one decides on or just chooses a gender identity overnight – appreciate that they have likely spent significant time contemplating this and it has taken courage to share it with you,” he said.

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depression Health mental health Transgender