More in this series:Parents of LGBTQ + Teens: A Guide to Terminology and Basic Concepts You Should Know
LGBTQ+ and Transgender Teens: Using a Teen’s Chosen Name Reduces Depression and Suicide Risk
Is Gender-Specific Treatment for Teens Necessary or Does It Exclude LBGTQI+ Teens?
When we write about suicide risk in teens, we include the following warning in every article. Sometimes it appears two or three times, if it bears repeating. Because of the elevated risk of suicide in transgender teens, as compared to non-transgender teens, we’ll share it right now:
If your teen talks about suicide or threatens a suicide attempt, take it seriously. Call 911 or take them to the emergency room at a hospital or psychiatric hospital right away. Do not wait.
Never ignore talk of suicide.
Parents may be tempted to ignore talk of suicide – known as suicidal ideation – because they think their teen is being dramatic, making a threat for attention, or saying something controversial simply to shock or scare them.
It’s true. Sometimes teens say things for the shock value, to get attention, or – for the lack of a better phrase – to freak their parents out.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that the benefits of taking suicidal ideation or talking about a suicide attempt seriously far outweigh any risks. Think of it this way. If you take any hint of suicide seriously – and they are indeed contemplating suicide – you can save their life. On the other hand, if you ignore talk of suicide – and they’re not genuinely contemplating suicide – then you teach them that you take their mental health seriously. You also teach them that suicide is neither a topic to joke about nor a topic to use as an empty threat or for shock value.
If your teen is transgender, questioning, or transitioning, and they say something like “I wish I were dead” then every parental alarm bell you have should go off all at once – and you need to heed those alarms.
Because reliable research and direct evidence from the transgender community indicate that transgender people – and transgender teens in particular – are at elevated risk of suicide attempts, non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), and death by suicide.
Transgender Teens and Suicide Risk: Stigma and Discrimination
The primary reason parents of transgender teens need to take any hint of suicide – including comments that may seem innocuous or offhand – is that they’re at increased risk of suicide, compared to their non-transgender peers. It’s that simple. We want to repeat it as often as possible so they hear it loud and clear.
The primary reason transgender teens are at increased risk of suicidal ideation, non-suicidal self-injury, and suicide attempts is stigma. A study published in 2015 by the National Center for Transgender Equality reported details the stigma transgender people experience. Stigma comes in the form of harassment, discrimination, and social/workplace exclusion.
Here’s what the study showed:
- Close to half of transgender people experience verbal harassment for being transgender
- Nearly one in ten reports being physically assaulted for being transgender
- About one in three reports experiencing homelessness as a result of housing discrimination
- About one in three report discrimination in the workplace and work hiring process
That’s data on transgender people in general. The research on transgender teens is more alarming than that. The 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report published by the Human Rights Campaign shows transgender teens are at increased risk of:
- 42% say their community is not open to transgender people
- 26% say their biggest problem is not feeling accepted by their family.
- 92% say they hear negative messages about being transgender at school, from peers, or online.
- 68% say they hear negative messages about being transgender from elected officials.
- 76% say they cannot be themselves at home.
- 75% have families who don’t support them or show interest in the transgender community or the issues relevant to transgender people
- 78% hear their family members or loved ones make negative remarks about the LGBTQ+ community
- 73% experience verbal threats
- 70% are physically bullied at school
- 48% are mocked or disparaged by family members
Sexual Coercion and Assault
- 77% report unwanted sexual jokes, comments, or gestures
- 20% report sexual coercion
- 11% report sexual assault or rape
Those statistics don’t include the facts about transgender teens and overall mental health. Compared to cisgender (non-transgender) peers, transgender teens are at increased risk of:
Here’s what all the data we present above means: because of a range of factors – primarily stigma they encounter from peers, authority figures, and loved ones- transgender teens are at a significantly increased risk of suicide. Here’s one final statistic to drive the point home. In a survey conducted in 2019 that included over 2000 adolescents (14-18), researchers found that, in the year before taking the survey:
- 85% of transgender teens seriously contemplated suicide
- 50% of transgender teens attempted suicide
That’s why we’re writing this article. And that’s why – if you’re the parent of a transgender teen – you need to take any talk of suicide seriously.
What to Listen and Watch For, What Not to Ignore
The first thing you can do to mitigate suicide risk, as the parent of a transgender, is to understand the warning signs and risk factors. To clarify, a warning sign is a behavior that a suicide attempt is possible in the near future, while a risk factor is something present in a transgender teen’s life that increases the likelihood of suicide.
We discuss many of the risk factors above, but we’ll repeat them now.
Teen Suicide/Transgender Teens: Suicide Risk Factors
- Being transgender is a risk factor.
- Any diagnosed mental health disorder is a risk factor
- A history of suicide attempts is a risk factor.
- Experiencing any form of abuse – physical, sexual, or psychological – is a risk factor.
- Divorce or separation in the family is a risk factor
- Social isolation is a risk factor
- Chronic illness is a risk
- Alcohol or drug addiction is a risk factor
Now we’ll list the warning signs.
Teen Suicide/Transgender Teens: Suicide Warning Signs
- Talking about or threatening suicide
- Seeking or access to lethal methods: seeking pills, weapons, or other means
- The presence of a suicide plan
- Talking about wanting to die
- Rage, anger, talk of revenge
- Reckless, impulsive, risky behavior
- Expressing feelings of being trapped
- Excessive alcohol/substance use
- Withdrawing from family, friends, society
- Anxiety, agitation, abnormal sleep (too much or too little)
- Dramatic changes in mood
Next, we’ll share the warning signs that are not obvious. These are the things you may think a teenager will say to be dramatic or shocking. However, if your teen is transgender, you need to pay close attention to any language or behavior on this list. And if your teen is transgender and any of the risk factors we discussed above are present, you need to take any of the following language or behavior as seriously as any of the primary warning signs:
- Giving away possessions
- Talking vaguely about not being around in the future
- Talking more than vaguely, but not necessarily specifically, about not being around in the future. This includes saying things like:
- “When I’m gone”
- “Soon all this won’t matter”
- “If I killed myself”
- “I wish I’d never been born”
- Joking about being dead or committing suicide
- Saying goodbyes to friends or loved ones as if they won’t see them again
- Not making any plans for or talking about the future
- Escalating risky behavior: sex, drugs, alcohol, dangerous driving
- Decreasing effort around typical daily activities like homework or chores
- Increasing withdrawal
- Sleeping far more or less than usual
If your transgender teen displays any of the behavior or uses any of the language above, please default to our warning at the beginning of this article: do not ignore it, call 911, and get them to the hospital immediately.
My Transgender Teen Might Be At-Risk: What Can I Do?
With all of that said, there are specific steps you can take to support your transgender teen. These steps can prevent them from reaching the point where they consider suicide, and mitigate the impact the very real and damaging stigma, discrimination, and exclusion they experience in society-at-large.
Seven Ways to Help Your Transgender Teen
- Offer them unconditional love, compassion, support, and understanding. This is the most important protective factor of all: your child needs to know you love and support everything about them, including their gender identity and sexual orientation.
- Learn everything you can about things that impact transgender youth and teens.
- Research and understand any state, city, and local school district policies regarding transgender people.
- Become an ally and an advocate for transgender-inclusive curriculums, programs, and clubs in your community and your teen’s school
- Stay vigilant for any signs of harassment, discrimination, or bullying online or in-person at school or in the community
- Join your teen and participate in local transgender-oriented or LGBTQ+ organizations or events
- Hint: Going to a Pride March or Pride event with your teen will mean the world to them
- Create a safe, supportive, inclusive home environment where you welcome all LGBTQ+ teens with open arms and an open heart, whether you or your teen are members of the LGBTQ+ community or not.
When you do these seven things, you create an environment and a relationship that’s loving and supportive. Many transgender teens report attempting suicide because they fall into despair, sadness, and isolation because they feel like no one understands what they’re going through – not their family, not their friends, and not their teachers at school. You can prevent this from happening with your teen by giving them the foundation they need to feel complete: this starts by validating who they are and loving that beautiful and unique human with all your heart.
Ready to Get Help for Your Child?Evolve offers CARF and Joint Commission accredited treatment for teens with mental health disorders and/or substance abuse. Your child will receive the highest caliber of care in our comfortable, home-like residential treatment centers. We offer a full continuum of care, including residential, partial hospitalization/day (PHP), and intensive outpatient treatment (IOP).
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA. He writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.