Transgender Veterans Face High Risk of Mental Health Problems
Among military veterans who identify as transgender, nearly 50 percent have been hospitalized due to a suicide attempt or suicidal thoughts, and 90 percent have at least one mental health diagnosis, such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study whose findings will be presented at The Endocrine Society’s 98th annual meeting in Boston.
The military population, including both active members and veterans, has a fourfold higher rate of gender dysphoria compared to the general U.S. population. Formerly known as gender identity disorder, gender dysphoria is the experience of significant distress associated with nonconformity to one’s birth gender.
“As more of our active military returns from deployment and transitions to veteran status, the health care system will be faced with treating more transgender veterans who have mental health issues,” said principal investigator Marissa Grotzke, M.D., an endocrinologist at Salt Lake City Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC), Salt Lake City.
It is already known that non-veterans with gender dysphoria have distinct health care concerns and much higher rates of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Previous studies have also shown that military veterans suffer from higher rates of mental health disorders as well, including PTSD and depression. Less is known, however, about the double mental health impact of veterans with gender dysphoria.
By examining 2014-2015 medical records at Salt Lake City VAMC, Grotzke and her team found 39 patients who had a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Eight transgender patients were transitioning from female to male, and the other 39 were male-to-female. They included both combat and noncombat veterans and ranged in age from 21 to 68 years.
The researchers then looked for mental health conditions that coexisted with the gender dysphoria. They found that PTSD was the most commonly identified mental health diagnosis, affecting 46 percent of these veterans, followed by depression in 41 percent. Tobacco use occurred in one-third, and anxiety was present in 15 percent. Nine patients (23 percent) had other substance abuse, bipolar disorder, or schizotypal personality disorder.
Eighteen patients (46 percent) carried two or more mental health diagnoses, according to the researchers. Only four patients (10 percent) with gender dysphoria had no additional mental health problem.
“These findings highlight the need to improve the quality of care for our transgender veterans,” Grotzke said.
To address these issues, the Salt Lake City VAMC formed a multidisciplinary gender dysphoria team composed of an endocrinologist, mental health professional, pharmacist, speech therapist and vocational rehabilitation providers. Team members meet together twice a month to discuss patients and treatment plans, which Grotzke said already has been “very beneficial” for patients.
There are most likely several reasons behind the increased rates of mental health disorders found in transgender veterans. Grotzke said that traumatic brain injuries sustained in combat, military sexual abuse, and stigma related to gender struggles are common in this population.
Source: The Endocrine Society