Throughout history, LGBTQ identities have been classified by health organizations and individuals alike as mental illnesses. This wrongful classification has resulted in an increased stigma against the LGBTQ community, but public health agencies have corrected themselves and are gradually declassifying sexual identities and gender identities as mental illnesses.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is one of the agencies taking these corrective steps. In June 2018, the WHO has removed the condition of being transgender from their list of mental illnesses, instead classifying it as a sexual health condition under the label “gender incongruence.” Many people have expressed their agreement on this decision, but debates over the relationship between LGBTQ identities and mental illness are still ongoing.
Although some people have disagreed with the WHO’s decision to remove being transgender from their list of mental illnesses, the action is scientifically sound and will help reduce the stigma and discrimination that surrounds the transgender community.
WHO’s Reasoning and Scientific Support
The WHO has cited many factors that went into their decision. A spokesman for the agency said that being transgender was removed from their mental illness list because “[the WHO] had a better understanding that [it] wasn’t actually a mental health condition.”
Indeed, this realization can be supported by the results of multiple scientific studies that were conducted in recent years. A study published in 2016 in The Lancet Psychiatry concluded that mental distress faced by transgender people was likely caused by rejection and violence directed towards them rather than being caused by being transgender itself. If being transgender was in of itself a mental illness, just having the identity alone would be enough to cause someone to experience significant mental distress. The fact that being transgender in of itself is not a mental illness is proven further in the results of a 2012 study which said that 57% of transgender youth with unsupportive parents attempted suicide within a year prior to the date the study was conducted, while only 4% of transgender youth with very supportive parents attempted suicide. It is important to view transgender people as people who are prone to mental illness rather than people who are inherently mentally ill, as the two cases require differing methods of support, and the former one is most accurate to the transgender experience.
Scientists have also concluded that the viewing of transgender people as mentally ill can “force them to get psychiatric care rather than the physical care they need” or be “used by governments to deny decision-making authority to transgender people.” Therefore, members of the medical field are only harming transgender people when they label them as mentally ill, instead of helping them like they intended to. The WHO is now aware of this effect, saying that the mental illness label was only “causing stigma,” which was one of the other main motivations behind the WHO’s decision. Labeling the condition of being transgender with something more accurate, such as a condition related to sexual health, will improve the medical and psychological help available to transgender people who may or may not be struggling with gender dysphoria or other conditions.
Feedback on the Decision
Many people are celebrating the WHO’s decision because they are taking it as a sign that the world is becoming more accepting towards the transgender community. Transgender activists have campaigned for years to disprove the description of being transgender as a mental illness, and their hard work has paid off. Promoting misconceptions will only strengthen social stigmas, which keep people from seeking the support they need.
However, some people believe that being transgender means one is inherently mentally ill, and they are unlikely to be swayed by the WHO’s decision. Their main argument is that transgender people are distressed about their identity, which is a sign of mental illness. However, according to the American Psychological Association, not all transgender people are necessarily distressed or disturbed by their gender preferences alone, and their distress commonly comes from not having the resources, support, or confidence to freely express their true gender identity like cisgendered people can. In contrast, in the case of mental illnesses, the illnesses themselves can cause distress.
Positive Effects of the Decision
Now that the WHO has finally removed being transgender as a mental illness, society can correct its misconceptions and become more understanding of the transgender community and the stigma and discrimination its members are subjected to. The WHO has demonstrated that they have listened to transgender people by considering their wishes, and this will motivate the LGBT community and its allies to take more steps towards gaining equality.
Furthermore, professionals are now equipped with the accurate information they need to effectively help transgender people, which will improve access to mental health services and allow more people to seek help.
The WHO’s decision will undeniably assist the transgender community by painting a more accurate image of their gender identities and reducing social stigma, but society can do more to promote transgender equality.
Right now, people should share the news of the WHO’s decision and related scientific studies with people they know, so they can others’ awareness of transgender issues.
In the long term, people can continue to support transgender people by learning about and becoming more sensitive to transgender issues. People who personally know transgender people can increase their support for them and encourage them to seek help if they are struggling with expressing their gender identity.
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