A Scientist Reviews Transgender Suicide Stats
The transgender suicide statistics above were presented by the charity Mermaids at the Trans Equality Legal Initiative day event in London on November 18, and subsequently shared extensively on Twitter. These were the same statistics shown at the Mermaids event in London on October 14, the event that anyone critical of child transition was barred from attending:
Susie Green, CEO of Mermaids, consistently uses the threat of children’s suicide to justify her push for early treatment with blockers and hormones; to convince parents of their need to support their child to transition and to urge the NHS to relax protocols. In this Daily Mail article in 2014 for example, she states:
“The blockers offer the only chance for them to stop the terrible trauma their children have started to go through as they begin to develop into a sex they feel is absolutely alien to them.”
“The self-harm and suicide rate among transgender teens is extremely high so offering blockers saves lives. It’s quite simple.”
In the Daily Mirror in 2015 she said this:
“The difference between a properly supported child and one who isn’t is massive. Those who feel they don’t have their parents’ support are much more likely to self-harm and attempt suicide.”
And in a Guardian article the same year:
“It’s absolutely vital. If they feel their body is changing against their will, that’s when we get a lot of suicidality, self-harm, lots of young people talking about wanting to be dead. If you’ve got a child who’s suicidal and self-harming because their body is changing against their will, nothing is done to fast-track or deal with that need.”
In this article the 2014 Pace survey on which the transgender suicide statistics are based, is referenced as a study of “2000 young people with gender issues”:
Green reels off shocking figures from a 2014 study by the mental health charity Pace which surveyed 2,000 young people with gender issues: 48% attempt suicide, 58% self-harm. “It’s really common.” She pauses. “You can see why we’re worried.”
The teaching of Mermaids and its effect on parents who seek their support is evident in the same article:
Previously the Guardian had itself uncritically reported the Pace survey results in a 2014 article.
Mermaids also used the 48% attempted suicide figure at the Transgender Equality Inquiry, referenced here in the report from the Women and Equalities Committee:
241. A number of trans advocacy groups told us that, under these current treatment protocols, patients could not access treatment quickly enough. Mermaids said there was a significant risk of self-harm or suicide where hormone treatment is not yet being given; they drew attention to evidence that the attempted suicide rate among young trans people is 48 per cent.
The suicide risk amongst young trans people was subsequently mentioned a total of eight times during the Transgender Equality Debate in the House of Commons on December 1st. Clearly the emotive and distressing issue of young people’s suicide will have a profound impact and influence on people directing policy.
There is, however, no evidence to show the connection that Susie Green makes between delay in treatment and suicide. If government ministers had examined the survey they would have seen that it studied respondents under the age of 26 with no indication of whether they had existing mental health issues, nor whether they were pre- or post-treatment. Does treatment prevent, make no difference, increase, or even cause suicidal ideation? This survey cannot say.
Most glaringly, the 48% statistic was NOT taken from a survey of “more than 2000 trans people in the UK” as Mermaids proclaims and as the following guest post explains:
Statistics and Lies
We are very grateful to our friend and colleague Sarah Jane, a scientist and mother of two (who asked us not to identify her further) for critically examining the Pace survey to reveal the inaccurate and very misleading way the figures have been used to influence vulnerable kids and parents as well as the media and government. We publish her analysis with her permission here:
There is a statistic that is bandied around during most discussions about young ‘trans’ people. It relates to suicide rates and it usually claims somewhere in the region of 50% of young transgender people have attempted suicide.
This statistic is often alluded to in comments along the lines of “shocking risk of suicide”, “ very high suicide rates” and it informs the fear of parents who so often comment: “Better to have a live daughter than a dead son” and vice versa.
Sometimes a voice of reason will interject, especially when these stats are quoted by a worried parent of a child voicing confusion about their gender identity. I have seen people say, “That survey was self-selecting, don’t rely on it” or “ the sample was very small, it’s not representative”. Reassuring in a small way, but statistics don’t lie… do they?
Recently these statistics were presented to a room full of solicitors and other people with an interest in improving the lives of trans people from a legal perspective. Whether a genuine misinterpretation of the survey figures, an accidental exaggeration or a deliberate attempt to garner sympathy and support by presenting apparently shocking and definitive statistics is unclear, but now it has been projected as part of a Powerpoint presentation, and Tweeted by several concerned people, it is in the public domain and I was concerned enough to find out the truth.
I took the time to read the study referred to in the small print. It set out to look at how mental health services could be improved for LGBT+ people and its aim was to focus particularly on 3 areas:
- Suicidal ideation (thoughts of suicide, attempts at suicide and self-harm) among young LGBT+ people.
- Heavy drinking among lesbian and bisexual women.
- Body image among gay and bisexual men.
The study had two main parts. To recruit and interview people with direct experience of the above mental health issues and to recruit a large sample of people to complete a survey linking to the above issues to give a picture of how they affect a wide cross-section of people in the UK today, including LGBT+.
The survey recruited 2,078 people of all sexualities and genders. The majority of those 2,078 people were heterosexual and were not transgender.
When analysing the responses relating to suicidal ideation the study only looked at respondents under the age of 26. This reduced the sample size to 485 people. Of these, 27 identified themselves as trans*. That’s TWENTY SEVEN. Not 2,000 trans* people, 58% of whom had considered suicide, but 27 trans* people, 15 of whom had considered suicide.
It is tragic when anyone considers suicide but it’s also unfortunately extremely common. According to the same study a third of young LGB people have, but this fact is not emblazoned on every leaflet or proclaimed loudly by Stonewall in every media discussion.
From the survey:
“…given the nature of PACE and also of the topic of the research, it is possible that there is a disproportion amongst research participants of people with experience of or who are sensitive towards mental health issues.”
Indeed the recruitment methods described were very likely to attract trans* people who were receiving or had sought support for mental health issues. The survey sums up with the caveat:
“Ultimately our findings can only be considered valid for our samples.”
Yet transgender support organisations are presenting these statistics as facts, scaring transgender people themselves, their families and anyone who has dealings with them.
Back to the statistics. Let’s turn it into numbers that reflect the truth of the survey results:
2014 survey of 27 young trans people in UK
13 had previously attempted suicide
8 attempted suicide in the last year
With no adjustment for co-morbid mental health issues or the fact that the respondents may well have found out about or been attracted to completing the survey because of their interaction with mental health services or history of suicide attempts, these figures should really not be extrapolated to apply to the entire transgender population.
Whether or not you think a sample size of 27 people is representative of an entire group and justifies the entire group being labelled according to the findings of such a small study, there is a glaring issue here. Mermaids, the support group for transgender children and their families, effectively lied in its presentation to a roomful of legal professionals. The survey was not of 2,000 trans people at all. Saying it was lends credence to a trope that is already incredibly emotive and potentially dangerous.
Bandying around these doctored statistics as facts does a good job of garnering support for the cause and strikes fear into people who might otherwise be less than supportive of certain demands by and on behalf of transgender people but at what cost? Are there not enough genuine arguments to further the cause for equal treatment of transgender people without resorting to exaggeration and obfuscation of the truth? Presenting this trope to families of transgender children and young people is nothing short of emotional blackmail. “Allow your child to transition or you will have their suicide on your hands.” In any other context threatening suicide in order to force others to accept your demands is emotional abuse, in the context of transition it is positively encouraged as a way to dismiss concerns of friends and family.
By announcing that trans people are an unmitigated suicide risk we are telling them and their families that they are likely to commit suicide. People are very suggestible. If you are told 50% of people like you will be suicidal, when you are having a dark day, instead of thinking tomorrow will be better, are you not more likely to worry that you’re going the way of all those suicidal folks and therefore spiral downwards? Parents who think their child is suicidal may treat them differently and make different decisions based on that information.
Suicide is contagious. Suicidal ideation is incredibly dangerous, especially for young people. There are guidelines in place for reporting of suicide for a reason and, in the main, the press seem to follow them with one glaring exception – transgender people. Surely transgender people would be better served with a positive movement like It Gets Better rather than seeing their advocates and support organisations constantly telling people that they are a danger to themselves.
The dangers of the transgender suicide narrative are discussed in a roundtable debate published recently by the site 4thWaveNow.
This post from Fair Play for Women comprehensively exposes the tactics of Mermaids and places the transgender suicide statistics within the context of wider mental health statistics for all young people.