Transgender youth health study reveals 'alarming' statistics on mental health

A national survey of transgender youth shows alarming statistics related to mental health. The cross-country survey of more than 900 young people included a special regional report on youth from Alberta.

'These youth are here and they're no longer going to be silent and invisible,' says lead researcher

The Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey included responses from almost 1,000 youth on a variety of health-related issues. (Torbak Hopper/Flickr)

Almost 65 per cent of transgender youth in Alberta between the ages of 19 and 25 have considered suicide at some point in their lives.

More than 90 per cent of trans youth in Alberta between 14 and 18 years old don't seek help for mental health issues because they're scared their parents will find out.

And almost 40 per cent of trans youth in the Prairie provinces have been physically forced to have sex.

Those are some of the most alarming statistics revealed in a national survey of transgender youth released on Wednesday.

The survey of more than 900 young people, titled the Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey, included a special regional report on Alberta.

The report fills a significant "data gap" that has sometimes prevented action on trans youth mental health, said Kris Wells, the lead Alberta researcher and director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta.
Kris Wells, professor and director of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, helped author a report on the health of transgender youth in Canada. (CBC)

"People who resist LGBTQ issues, they keep saying, 'Show us the evidence in Alberta,' Wells said. "Now the evidence is here, it's compelling. And we need our leaders, our policy-makers, our legislators to take action to address these alarming statistics ... because they're not going to change on their own."

The detailed survey was conducted online and included more than 100 respondents from Alberta. The survey defined transgender as "when a person's sex and gender do not match."

The youth were asked questions about everything from their home lives, to their school lives, to their mental and sexual health.

'The first door should be the right one'

In Alberta, discussions around the treatment of transgender youth in schools have made headlines over the past several years. But the survey also revealed gaps in how these youth access medical care.

About three-quarters of youth were "uncomfortable" or "very uncomfortable" discussing their trans status and specific health care needs with doctors at walk-in clinics, the survey found.

That's despite the fact that almost half of these youth use those clinics for medical care.

Wells said medical professionals need training to reduce systemic barriers that prevent trans youth from accessing health care.

"They shouldn't have to keep going from door to door to find help and support. The first door should always be the right door for vulnerable youth," he said.

"It prevents them from going back to any doctor ... and it's hard to even find a family doctor who is LGBT-inclusive, never mind one who has knowledge of trans youth health issues," he said.

When youth can't find support or acceptance among adults, they're more likely to turn to their peers.

"With the medical side, [it's] a bit hard to know if you're going to be having a lot of confidentiality when you're in that younger age bracket, especially when you're under 16," said Kail Liesemer, a 21-year-old transgender man who lives in Calgary and has volunteered with the Mosaic Youth Group in the city.

"A lot of youth were going strongly to peer[s] or peer-run groups, looking for people who had similar experiences instead of looking to professionals."

'They're not going away'

When Liesemer was in high school, there were no gay-straight alliance (GSA) groups. He said he never felt like he had a circle of support.

"It was hard to get teachers to use the correct pronoun or to be allowed into the correct bathroom," he said.

"With GSAs popping up around schools, there's more of a collective and it's a lot easier to have your voice heard there, as well as just having the support of people around you. Having people who have similar experiences is very good for your mental health in general."

The survey results show the need to better support the families of trans youth, and to further develop inclusive policies in schools and the health care system, Wells said.

"We're saying to our major social organizations to pay attention and listen. Because these youth are here and they're no longer going to be silent and invisible and they're not going away," Wells said.