Gender Struggling Children and Parent Fears of Suicide

Parents of children who struggle with gender identity face enormous pressure from our culture to affirm their children’s feelings that they are really the opposite gender. Fear is often used as a weapon to discourage any other response, the message being that failure to affirm and assist in gender transition will result in suicide.

In 2014 I was introduced on YouTube to the Whittington’s whose daughter Ryland began identifying as a boy as soon as she was old enough to speak. As the Whittington’s wrestled over what to do, they shared how their decision to help Ryland transition from girl to boy crystallized with the discovery of one “fact”.

“We discovered that 41% of transgender people have attempted suicide due to lack of societal acceptance. We were not willing to take that risk!”

This 41% statistic which is accepted as fact all over the internet virtually made their decision for them. With such a risk to Ryland, how could they do anything else but embrace the pathway to a full gender transition. But is this statistic even accurate, and more importantly is it really telling us that gender transition is the solution? The short answer to both questions is ‘no’.

Is the 41% statistic accurate?

From the outset it should be stated that virtually all research confirms that people who struggle with gender identity experience a higher rate of suicide attempts than the rest of the population. This tragic fact is not in dispute and should be cause for deep concern and compassion. Any suicide rate is cause for concern, but to the extent that numbers play a roll in helping us to better understand correlation and causality, let alone determining what actions we take in response, the accuracy of numbers is very important. Is 41% accurate?

The 41% statistic comes from a report by the Williams Institute in January 2014 entitled: “Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults.” The report exclusively used data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) conducted in 2008. There is an excellent analysis of this report on the website 4thwavenow.com that I will not take the time to reconstruct. I would however like to point out what the report itself has to say about the “fact” of the reliability of the 41% statistic.

The following are quotes from the opening pages of the report regarding limitations and shortcomings with the survey data itself.

  1. First, that NTDS questionnaire included only a single item about suicidal behavior that asked, “Have you ever attempted suicide? Y/N?” It goes on to point out that “researchers have found that using this question alone in surveys can inflate the percentage (by nearly double) of affirmative responses, since some respondents may use it to communicate self-harm behavior that is not a ‘suicide attempt’.” (p. 3)  In simple terms the report says that the way in which the survey phrased the single question inflated the actual attempted suicide rate by as much as 100%.

  2. Second, the study admits that the NTDS used “convenience sampling” to collect its data, which means respondents may not reflect the overall transgender/gender non-conforming population. (p. 4)

  3. Third, it notes that the survey’s emphasis on discrimination may have increased participation by those who have suffered negatively from anti-transgender bias, a factor often associated with a higher level of negative mental health outcomes including suicide attempts. (p. 3)  In other words the focus of the survey itself was inherently predisposed to attract respondents with experiences that contribute to negative outcomes like attempting suicide.

So, is the 41% statistic accurate? By the study’s own admission, ‘no’. According to the Williams Institute, correcting for methodological limitations would likely reduce that number by at least half. This doesn’t alleviate the fact that suicide attempt rates among transgender and gender non-conforming individuals is statistically much higher than the rest of the population, but saying it’s 41% is very VERY misleading.

What Story Does the Statistics Tell?

Even if the suicide attempt rate is closer to 20%, that is still alarming and an issue that should be thoughtfully considered and urgently addressed. The greater question however surrounds the meaning of the statistic. Does the study really tell us that facilitating gender transition will resolve suicidal feelings? Again, referring to Williams report itself, the answer is ‘no’.

  1. First, the report admits limitations to the survey results because the questionnaire did not ask any follow up questions, most importantly what the respondents transgender/gender non-conforming status was at the time of the attempt.(p. 3) In other words the report has no way of indicating whether respondents were suicidal before or after they transitioned to their preferred gender. Did gender reassignment resolve suicidal feelings, or cause them? The study cannot tells us.

  2. Second, the survey did not explore respondents’ mental health status and history which it admits is an important risk factor for suicide. It states: “The lack of systematic mental health information in the NTDS data significantly limited our ability to identify the pathways to suicidal behavior among the respondents.” (p. 3) In other words, without more in depth information about respondents’ mental health there is no way of knowing what the cause of their suicide attempt was. Besides this, professionals in the mental health field know very well that suicide is never the result of a single factor, “but rather results from a complex interaction of many factors and usually involves a history of psychosocial problems.” 1

The idea that full gender transition is the only path to prevent the risk of suicide is not based on fact, but is a fear tactic driven by a transgender ideology that refuses to consider the possibility that gender confusion is a condition of human brokenness that needs to be repaired. Additionally, the idea that changing genders will make a child truly happy and resolve their problems is equally false. In a recent special report in The New Atlantis, Dr. Lawrence S. Mayer and Dr. Paul R. McHugh, had this to say about the scientific evidence and the relationship between gender transition and suicide.

“The scientific evidence summarized suggests we take a skeptical view toward the claim that sex-reassignment procedures provide the hoped-for benefits or resolve the underlying issues that contribute to elevated mental health risks among the transgender population. While we work to stop maltreatment and misunderstanding, we should also work to study and understand whatever factors may contribute to the high rates of suicide and other psychological and behavioral health problems among the transgender population, and to think more clearly about the treatment options that are available.” (p. 112-113)

Conclusion:

If you are a parent whose child struggles with their gender you face a terrifying challenge, and the fear of suicide will no doubt weigh heavily upon your mind. However, the idea that facilitating gender transition socially or medically is the only path to avoid suicide is a myth. This does not simplify the road ahead for you and your child, nor diminish the real internal struggle they feel within their own being. Helping your child work through these feelings will be difficult and will require a long view. However, the ultimate direction you wish to lead them in must be based on truth, not fear.

The truth is that helping your child to redefine themselves though gender transition will not bring them peace. That can only come by being reconciled to God their Creator through Jesus Christ His Son. Since God created them to relate to him through their gender differentiated bodies, seeking to alter those bodies socially or medically will only serve to drive them further from God who is the only one that can show them who they were truly made to be. Their true identity is found in Him.

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Notes:

  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide: Recommendations from a National Workshop, [accessed online Jan 26, 2017 at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00031539.htm]

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