Trans youth report significant stress and mental health challenges, a profound lack of safety in navigating their daily lives, barriers to supportive health care, and worrying rates of poverty. Yet, there is immense hope.
The Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey
The Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey is a national online survey conducted by researchers from several Canadian universities and community organizations. In recognition of International Coming Out Day on October 11, 2017, the research team shared results from the first-ever survey of trans youth in Alberta, who made up 12% of the total respondents.
The survey included somewhat different questions for younger (14-18 years) and older (19-25 years) trans youth about a wide range of life experiences and behaviours that influence young people’s health. The Alberta provincial report is a detailed snapshot of the larger national survey results.
There is growing awareness in Canada that gender does not always match sex assigned at birth, and that people may be transgender or transsexual. Gender also may not fit neatly into the two boxes of women/men or girls/boys. Some people identify with terms such as non-binary, genderqueer, gender diverse, gender fluid, or agender. We have chosen to use the word trans in this report to describe youth whose gender identity and sex assigned at birth differ. While we acknowledge that this umbrella term does not fit for everyone, our intention is to be as inclusive as possible. — Being Safe, Being Me in Alberta
In total, 114 youth from Alberta completed part or all the survey. The average age of participants from Alberta was 20 years old. Youth age 18 or younger represented 36% of all participants.
This survey represents and brings visibility to the experiences of 114 younger
(14-18 years) and older (19-25 years) trans youth living in Alberta
- While most Albertan youth (80%) reported living in their felt gender at least part of the time, only slightly over a third lived in their felt gender full time. Across Canada, those who lived in their felt gender all the time were almost 50% more likely to report good or excellent mental health.
- Safety, violence exposure, and discrimination were major issues. For example, in the last year three quarters of younger participants reported discrimination because of their gender identity (about three quarters%) and more than half reported discrimination due to their sexual orientation (56%). In the last five years, two thirds of older youth reported discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation (67% and 68% respectively).
- Most youth (69%) reported sexual harassment; more than 1 in 3 younger participants had been physically threatened or injured in the past year (35%); and nearly half of older youth reported various types of cyberbullying (48%).
- Family relationships are important, and while younger trans youth generally reported feeling their parents cared about them, 81% reported their family did not understand them at all or only understood them a little, and only about 1 in 3 had an adult in their family they could talk to about problems (33%). When youth had high levels of parent support and family connectedness, they reported much better health.
- Mental health issues were a key concern. Nearly three-quarters reported self-harm in the past year (73%); a similar number reported serious thoughts of suicide (67% of younger youth in the past 12 months, and 63% of older youth in their lifetime); and more than 2 in 5 had attempted suicide (41% for younger youth in the last 12 months, and 38% of older youth in their lifetime).
- Many youth reported missing needed health care during the past year. Almost half of younger youth did not receive medical help when they were physically sick or hurt (44%), while three fifth did not access needed emotional or mental health services (62%). Three quarters of older youth missed needed physical or mental health care (74%).
- Half of youth with a family doctor (49%) said their current family doctor knew about their trans identity. However, only 15% of youth with a family doctor felt “very comfortable” discussing their trans status and trans-specific health care needs. Even fewer felt very comfortable at walk-in clinics (3%).
- Poverty and hunger was also an issue for some trans youth: a quarter of younger youth reported ever going to bed hungry because they did not have enough money for food at home (23%) and more than 1 in 3 older trans youth reported going hungry in the past year because they could not afford food (36%).
- Around 1 in 3 younger trans youth reported they had run away from home in the past year (32%).
Given the significant health challenges faced by trans youth revealed in the survey, as well as the clear health benefits reported by those who had supportive relationships and could live safely in their felt gender, there are several recommendations that emerged from the findings:
- Support for families of trans youth: Families are a key source of support for young people. We need better outreach and professional supports for families, to help them understand and support their trans youth, and to help trans youth feel safe at home.
- Safer schools: Schools need to become safer and more welcoming for trans youth, even before these youth make themselves known to school staff. Schools and school districts should work proactively with trans youth, their parents, trans community leaders, and professionals to develop comprehensive policies, programs (like GSAs and QSAs), and trans-inclusive curriculum to create more supportive school environments.
- Knowledgeable and accessible health care services: Healthcare providers and clinics should work with trans communities to ensure comprehensive and timely access to gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth. This is particularly important given the positive impact that being able to live in their felt gender has for youth. Professionals from all health care disciplines need further training to improve their ability to offer high quality care, including discipline-specific training in protocols for ad-dressing trans youth health issues.
- Engage trans youth and their families in the solutions for change: The 114 trans youth who shared their health experiences are the experts at identifying the challenges they face. They should have an active voice in making changes in the environments they navigate, to support their being and their becoming, their growth and their transition to adulthood.
The ground-breaking Canadian Trans Youth Health Survey involved more than 25 academics and researchers from across Canada. Dr. Kristopher Wells, University of Alberta, was one of the lead researchers in Alberta and is one of the principal authors of the new report. Read the full report in PDF format here.
We speak with Dr. Kristopher Wells.
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— People First Radio (@peoplefirstrad) October 18, 2017
About Kristopher Wells
Kristopher Wells is an Assistant Professor and Faculty Director with the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services in the Faculty of Education, University of Alberta. His doctoral research, which focused on sex, sexual, and gender differences in K-12 education, received several national and provincial awards including a Killam Doctoral Fellowship, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Graduate Scholarship, Andrew Stewart Memorial Graduate Prize for Research, Alberta Teachers’ Association Doctoral Fellowship, and the Alberta Award for the Study of Canadian Human Rights and Multiculturalism. Dr. Wells’ research and community service work has also been recognized with more than 60 awards, including an Alberta Centennial Medal and Alberta Teachers’ Association’s Public Education Award.
Internationally, Dr. Wells’ most recent project NoHomophobes.com has been featured across the world in more than 50 publications including the Economist, Atlantic, Independent, and Guardian. Dr. Wells is also one of the driving forces behind Pride Tape, which strives to make sports more inclusive of LGBTQ identities.