Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly. Scout grew up in rural Minnesota and spent a year in a mental institution when he was young. At times, he considered suicide, a result of his struggles with being transgender and the hard path he traveled in the transition to life as a man.
Today Scout, who goes by one name, is an adjunct professor, a father of three, and the director of the Network for LGBT Health Equity. He knows there are too many who didn’t survive struggles like his.
That’s more than a hunch: A new study from UCLA School of Law finds that about 40 percent of transgender people attempted suicide—about 10 times the rate of the general population.
Risks multiply for transgender men and women who are treated cruelly: Of those who were physically or sexually attacked at school, 78 percent reported attempting suicide. Of the transgender employees who experienced some form of violence in the workplace, 65 percent tried ending their lives.
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There are also those who felt stigmatized in their own homes: Of those whose family refused to spend time with them after learning of their transgender identity, 57 percent reported suicide attempts.
“This sadly resonates with me very strongly. If anything, it’s not news to me and for those I know and love,” says Scout. “I’ve been worried about trans adults I know who seem to be healthy, well-functioning individuals but are under the stress of this stigma.”
The study was released this week by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, and it was based on data from 2011’s National Transgender Discrimination Survey. That survey questioned 6,456 transgender and gender non-conforming adults on subjects ranging from family rejection to law enforcement abuse.
A notable caveat to the study’s findings is that the survey asked only whether respondents had attempted suicide—”yes” or “no.” That choice tends to raise the number of “yes” answers, because some respond that way to communicate self-harm that isn’t an actual suicide attempt.
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Still, says Jody Herman, manager of transgender research at the Williams Institute and the new study’s coauthor, the results are “cause for a lot of concern and alarm. The research in this area is scant. Personally, I’m looking over the next couple of years how to create a better understanding of how suicide and suicidal behavior affects milestones in a person’s life and to identify those areas of the most vulnerability.”
Vulnerability, across the board, is deep-seated and affected by stressors ranging from economic woes to a lack of education on the treatment of trans people both in school environments and in the military.
“We would love to see the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration take this up as a focus more, that they should find and fund researchers,” says Mara Keisling, the National Center for Transgender Equality’s founding executive director and herself a transgender woman. “Most trans people have known people who have attempted suicide or have thought about it.”
With discrimination, isolation, and danger so prevalent, many struggle for a healthy space in which to lead their own lives. Every month, hundreds of transgender youths reach out to Eden Lane, the transgender host of Colorado Public Television show “In Focus With Eden Lane.” The mother and wife says most of the troubled teens crave the stability of a safe home, access to informed health professionals, and job training.
“If I can create this kind of professional life for myself, so can they,” she says.
Scout, who has brought LGBT youths into his home to support and mentor, sees the importance of transgender adults going beyond appearing in PSA videos and in the press but actually reaching out to those around them in need.
“Every day I’m so relieved I didn’t commit suicide, because I have an amazing life,” he says, recalling his heartbroken days as a suicidal youth, when he longed for a nurturing environment.
“A lot of people have to make the transition from leaving their families and friends and going to a place where they’re more accepted,” Scout said. “How much are the adults and allied LGBT folks really there for someone going through that transition?”
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