On World Mental Health Day this year, Ashley Jay Brockwell FRSA reflects on transgender suicide and how the conversation around this needs to change.
Trigger warnings: suicide, mental health, depression, self-harm, transphobia
If you’re transgender, or know someone who is, you’ve probably heard the suicide statistics. The horrifying figures are repeated constantly, especially by charities supporting LGBTQIA+ rights. There are different variations: the percentage of trans people who commit or attempt suicide, or engage in self-harm. Sometimes it’s ‘young trans people’, or trans people in a specific country, but the overall conclusion is always the same: trans people are vulnerable to this at a far higher rate than the general population.
The constant repetition of this dismal parade of percentages has three main effects:
- It shocks a small minority of cis people into doing something to support trans rights.
- It normalises the idea, among both cis and trans people, that ‘most trans people have a mental illness’.
- It feeds trans people a limiting belief that the reason they’re feeling anxious or unhappy is because that’s the norm, and it’s pretty much expected that they’ll want to commit suicide.
- It can’t be denied that repeating suicide statistics is one way to attract attention and win over new allies to the trans rights cause. It can be very effective, but for the wrong reasons: it’s guilt-tripping people into supporting trans rights and the long-term damage may well outweigh any short-term gains.
The underlying message is that trans people need basic rights, and they are demanding them- like the right to self-define our gender, to use appropriate toilets, to receive medical treatment, to be addressed by the correct names and pronouns, and not to be constantly misgendered and deadnamed in the press.
We’re demanding our rights because… well, they’re our rights.
Trans rights are human rights, and we are human beings. We are, in most cases, awesome human beings.
Whether or not we’re feeling suicidal is of no relevance to the question of our entitlement to rights. There’s currently a lot of discussion around mental illness on social media, most of it focusing on the often-quoted statistic that ‘one in four people has a mental illness’. Presented with rates of suicidal ideation among trans people that are much higher than 25%, it’s easy to assume that the majority of trans people – or, indeed, all trans people – ‘have a mental illness’. That’s only one step away from the outdated, transphobic idea that ‘being trans IS a mental illness’ – a statement that the World Health Organisation formally rejected earlier this year.
From a psychological perspective, it’s damaging to fill a person’s head with limiting beliefs about who they are and what they can achieve. An entire movement of life coaches has arisen (complete with bestselling books, websites, YouTube videos and expensive e-courses) to help people break free from their limiting beliefs and acquire a more empowering mindset. Yet for trans people, nobody seems to question the wisdom of repeatedly reinforcing the message that we’re inherently messed-up and suicidal.
Where are all the coaches specialising in training trans people to chant ‘I am confident, I am strong, I am powerful, I am brave…’ and insisting that our thoughts create our reality? That the more we say these magic words, the sooner we’ll manifest our dreams of wealth and success? Are trans people not allowed dreams of wealth and success? Or is it that everyone’s assuming there’s no money in the trans self-empowerment market because, well, everyone knows that trans people are poor and unemployed and doomed to stay that way forever?
Suicidal thinking in trans people is not inevitable. It’s not hard-wired into our brains. It’s a consequence of growing up in a society that dictates to us how males and females are supposed to look and behave – in very rigid, uncompromising ways - and erases non-binary people altogether. It’s a result of having our talents and our potential systematically ignored, because too many people believe that what’s between our legs matters more than what’s between our ears. It comes from being subconsciously programmed that we will never be good enough or ‘normal’ enough or mentally well enough, no matter how hard we try, to get senior management jobs or run successful businesses.
It’s about time we started self-medicating with positive affirmations, to be taken three times a day:
I am confident.
I am strong.
I am powerful.
I am brave.
I am an unstoppable spiritual leader in an affirming, creative and ecologically-conscious community.
(Or whatever it is that you aspire to be. You could substitute anything you like…)
One thing is certain: trans rights will not be improved by talking more about suicide statistics. But there’s a very good chance that suicide statistics can be improved by talking more about trans rights… including the right to create our own happiness and success, whatever that means to us.