Mental Health Risks Rise With Age and Stage for Gender-Incongruent Youth

Heidi Splete

October 14, 2020

Gender-incongruent youth who present for gender-affirming medical care later in adolescence have higher rates of mental health problems than their younger counterparts, based on data from a review of 300 individuals.

"Puberty is a vulnerable time for youth with gender dysphoria because distress may intensify with the development of secondary sex characteristics corresponding to the assigned rather than the experienced gender," wrote Julia C. Sorbara, MD, of the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Children, also in Toronto, and colleagues.

Although gender-affirming medical care (GAMC) in the form of hormone blockers and/or gender-affirming hormones early in puberty can decrease in emotional and behavioral problems, many teens present later in puberty, and the relationship between pubertal stage at presentation for treatment and mental health has not been examined, they wrote.

In a study published in Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from youth with gender incongruence who were seen at a single center; 116 were younger than 15 years at presentation for GAMC and were defined as younger-presenting youth (YPY), and 184 patients aged 15 years and older were defined as older-presenting youth (OPY).

Overall, 78% of the youth reported at least one mental health problem at their initial visit. Significantly more OPY than YPY reported diagnosed depression (46% vs. 30%), self-harm (40% vs. 28%), suicidal thoughts (52% vs. 40%), suicide attempts (17% vs. 9%), and use of psychoactive medications (36% vs. 23%), all with P < .05.

In a multivariate analysis, patients in Tanner stages 4 and 5 were five times more likely to experience depressive disorders (odds ratio, 5.49) and four times as likely to experience depressive disorders (OR, 4.18) as those in earlier Tanner stages. Older age remained significantly associated with use of psychoactive medications (OR, 1.31), but not with anxiety or depression, the researchers wrote.

The YPY group were significantly younger at the age of recognizing gender incongruence, compared with the OPY group, with median ages at recognition of 5.8 years and 9 years, respectively, and younger patients came out about their gender identity at an average of 12 years, compared with 15 years for older patients.

The quantitative data are among the first to relate pubertal stage to mental health in gender-incongruent youth, "supporting clinical observations that pubertal development, menses, and erections are distressing to these youth and consistent with the beneficial role of pubertal suppression, even when used as monotherapy without gender-affirming hormones," Sorbara and associates wrote.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the cross-sectional design and the collection of mental health data at only one time point and by the use of self-reports. However, the results suggest that "[gender-incongruent] youth who present to GAMC later in life are a particularly high-risk subset of a vulnerable population," they noted. "Further study is required to better describe the mental health trajectories of transgender youth and determine if mental health status or age at initiation of GAMC is correlated with psychological well-being in adulthood."

Don't Rush to Puberty Suppression in Younger Teens

To reduce the stress of puberty on gender-nonconforming youth, puberty suppression as "a reversible medical intervention" was introduced by Dutch clinicians in the early 2000s, Annelou L.C. de Vries, MD, PhD, of Amsterdam University Medical Center, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

"The aim of puberty suppression was to prevent the psychological suffering stemming from undesired physical changes when puberty starts and allowing the adolescent time to make plans regarding further transition or not," de Vries said. "Following this rationale, younger age at the time of starting medical-affirming treatment (puberty suppression or hormones) would be expected to correlate with fewer psychological difficulties related to physical changes than older individuals," which was confirmed in the current study.

However, clinicians should be cautious in offering puberty suppression at a younger age, in part because "despite the increased availability of gender-affirming medical interventions for younger ages in recent years, there has not been a proportional decline in older presenting youth with gender incongruence," she said.

More data are needed on youth with postpuberty adolescent-onset transgender histories. The original Dutch studies on gender-affirming medical interventions note case histories describing "the complexities that may be associated with later-presenting transgender adolescents and describe that some eventually detransition," de Vries explained.

Ultimately, prospective studies with longer follow-up data are needed to better inform clinicians in developing an individualized treatment plan for youth with gender incongruence, de Vries concluded.

Care Barriers Can Include Parents, Access, Insurance

The study authors describe the situation of gender-affirming medical care in teens perfectly, M. Brett Cooper, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center/Children's Health Dallas, said in an interview.

Given a variety of factors that need further exploration, "many youth often don't end up seeking gender-affirming medical care until puberty has progressed to near full maturity," he said. "The findings from this study provide preliminary evidence to show that if we can identify these youth earlier in their gender journey, we might be able to impact adverse mental health outcomes in a positive way."

Cooper said he was not surprised by the study findings. "They are similar to what I see in my clinic.

"Many of our patients often don't present for medical care until around age 15 or older, similar to the findings of the study," he added. "The majority of our patients have had a diagnosis of anxiety or depression at some point in their lifetime, including inpatient hospitalizations for their mental health."

One of the most important barriers to care often can be parents or guardians, said Cooper. "Young people usually know their gender identity by about age 4-5 but parents may think that a gender-diverse identity could simply be a ‘phase.' Other times, young people may hide their identity out of fear of a negative reaction from their parents. The distress around identity may become more pronounced once pubertal changes, such as breast and testicle development, begin to worsen their dysphoria."

"Another barrier to care can be the inability to find a competent, gender-affirming provider," Cooper said. "Most large United States cities have at least one gender-affirming clinic, but for those youth who grow up in smaller towns, it may be difficult to access these clinics. In addition, some clinics require a letter from a therapist stating that the young person is transgender before they can be seen for medical care. This creates an access barrier, as it may be difficult not just to find a therapist but one who has experience working with gender-diverse youth."

Insurance coverage, including lack thereof, is yet another barrier to care for transgender youth, said Cooper. "While many insurance companies have begun to cover medications such as testosterone and estrogen for gender-affirming care, many still have exclusions on things like puberty blockers and surgical interventions." These interventions can be lifesaving, but financially prohibitive for many families if not covered by insurance.

As for the value of early timing of gender-affirming care, Cooper agreed with the study findings that the earlier that a young person can get into medical care for their gender identity, the better chance there is to reduce the prevalence of serious mental health outcomes. "This also prevents the potential development of secondary sexual characteristics, decreasing the need for or amount of surgery in the future if desired," he said.

"More research is needed to better understand the reasons why many youth don't present to care until later in puberty. In addition, we need better research on interventions that are effective at reducing serious mental health events in transgender and gender diverse youth," Cooper stated. "Another area that I would like to see researched is looking at the mental health of non-Caucasian youth. As the authors noted in their study, many clinics have a high percentage of patients presenting for care who identify as White or Caucasian, and we need to better understand why these other youth are not presenting for care."

The study received no outside funding. Sorbara disclosed salary support from the Canadian Pediatric Endocrine Group fellowship program. de Vries had no financial conflicts to disclose. Cooper had no financial conflicts to disclose, and serves as a contributor to LGBTQ Youth Consult in Pediatric News.

SOURCES: Sorbara JC et al. Pediatrics. 2020 Sep 21. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-3600; de Vries ALC et al. Pediatrics. 2020 Sep 21. doi: 10.1542/peds.2020-010611.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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