Why are NHS doctors are still treating trans people like they’re mentally ill?

“You’re an attractive girl, why do you want to do this?”

“You’re an attractive girl, why do you want to do this?”

“Do you ever wear make-up?”

“Are you domineering in sex with girls?”

The questions above come from a NHS psychiatrist.

On the receiving end, JR*, 23, polite, wide blue eyes, job in video production, started crying five minutes into the interview. She kept crying for the remaining hour and twenty-five minutes with the psychiatrist, a man in his fifties. Through other questions about why she had only got her hair cut short aged 19, whether her past relationships with women as a lesbian had been casual or serious, whether she was capable of forming lasting relationships, details of how she behaved in bed with them, and what age she’d thought she was gay, she had to explain the expression “gay scene”.

He asked me: ‘When did you cut your hair short?’ I said, ‘When I was 19’. You kept it long till then? Did boys come up to you?

It was harder to explain that having a short haircut was not the main sign of the creeping sense of misaligned gender that JR had begun to feel five years ago.  

That particular techniques in bed didn’t mean that she wasn’t like a woman. And that issues of fashion, haircut even sexuality were in many ways irrelevant to the feeling of being in the wrong body.

“He wasn't rude at all,” JR said of the psychiatrist, “just coming from a completely different angle at every point.”

Well-intentioned, he seemed uninformed about transgender people, gay people and, to an extent, women.

The question about whether she was “domineering” in bed is a case in point.

“I said that I had generally been with more feminine women, but that I didn't associate being feminine with being passive” JR recalled.

Raising her worry that being more gender-ambiguous would affect her job prospects, JR got this reaction:

“He said: ‘No you don't have to worry about that. The only time that would be awkward is if a more senior male colleague made an advance on you and that might affect your promotion chances’.”

That interview was four months ago and JR was sent to the psychiatrist because she is transgender and the NHS sends all transgender people to psychiatrists.

Uncertainty about gender is still listed in the psychiatrist’s diagnostic bible - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (pdf) (DSM) - produced by the American Association of Psychiatrists and used globally.

The most recent NHS guidance states that being trans is not a mental illness, but the feeling of a mismatch between biological sex and gender identity, and the discomfort that comes from thatIt is caused by brain development, they say:

The condition is increasingly understood to have its origins before birth. Research studies indicate that small parts of the baby’s brain progress along a different pathway from the sex of the rest of its body. This predisposes the baby to a future mismatch between gender identity and sex appearance.

Yet the institutions we have in Britain still route trans people through psychiatrists, and in many cases still treat them as though they are mentally ill.

“Psychiatrists often get asked to play a role in sorting out problems when other people can’t, and it’s not always very admirable,” says Christopher Cordess, Professor of Psychiatry at University of Sheffield.

“This sort of reference – when you have to go to a psychiatrist to get a signature – is society’s way of coping when it doesn’t know what to do but wants to keep a cap on something.”

He cites the case of abortion, also still “gatekept” by psychiatry.

“Psychiatry is horribly political.” said Cordess. “When I was training, homosexuals used to be referred to psychiatrists, now that’s slightly embarrassing.”

It was in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental health disorder.

And while the NHS is strapped for cash, changing attitudes doesn’t need to be expensive.

The 6,000 British people who are trans and who would like help for gender issues must first approach their GP, and then the GP must refer them to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist refers them to a Gender Clinic where the patient can finally receive specific counseling, hormones, or if they wish reassignment surgery. The patient’s local Primary Care Trust must be prepared to pay for that place.

“We actually wrote a paper called ‘Not so much a care path.. more a kind of steeple chase’” said Christine Burns, activist and member of an Advisory Group on trans issues for the Department of Health. Each of the three players in the referral process can be obstructive.                             

Doctor training is one reason why. Christine says:

“Gender issues are treated probably less than one day in their whole medical training. There is a wide-spread attitude that trans people are so rare that you’ll never come across one.  You get people who say ‘we don’t need to know about that because we don’t have any of those here’.

“That means you get people with unmet needs.”

Then there are the Primary Care Trusts who believe that trans people don’t exist.

“Some PCTs have not invested in enough places at the Gender Services Clinic” Christine says.

There are ten English regions with PCTs covering approximately four to six million people. Each of those will see 80-100 patients presenting to GPs each year. Some PCTs are not planning/ paying for enough places. You’ll hear things like ‘oh we don’t have those here’.

It is attitudes that Stuart Lorimer, a leading gender specialist in the NHS’s Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic, wants to change:

“By far the most difficult, obstructive phenomenon that we face as a clinic is the attitude that we face from medical colleagues – GPs, other psychiatrists” he says in a 2009 interview on Burns’ website.

“I vaguely remember a time in the past when nobody knew anyone who was gay. And there were very peculiar mythologies about gay people. And then that seemed to change with increased visibility and now everyone knows someone who is gay, and that gave people a human view of things.

“Generally speaking, doctors who have helped someone through their transition, experience it as positive. I think the negative feelings usually spring from ignorance.”

According to a 2006 survey about trans medical care, 80 per cent of GPs have good intentions and want to help, but the majority of them – 60 per cent – lack information.

'Engendered Penalties' by Stephen Whittle surveyed 872 trans people and also found that  19.5 per cent of GPs were not trans friendly, in fact the opposite.

A negative attitude, and even just ignorance can have a bad impact on a vulnerable patient. And these people are vulnerable.

An August 2012 survey into trans mental health by the Scottish Trans Group and Sheffield Hallam university – found that depression affected 62 per cent of the 889 trans people questioned, anxiety 56 per cent. In the general population it affects one in ten.

These people were having a bad time in all areas of the NHS: 63 per cent reported one or more negative experiences in mental health services, 65 per cent in general services and a shocking 62 per cent at a Gender Identity Clinic, according to the survey. 

Of those, just under a third felt that their gender identity was not validated as genuine, instead being perceived as a symptom of mental ill-health. A quarter felt uncomfortable being asked about their sexual behaviours.

The first-hand experiences quoted by The Scottish Trans survey tell some shocking tales:

My doctor sent me to see a gynecologist instead of the Gender Identity Clinic. He said he didn’t see trans people but he wanted to have a look at me. He then called in my husband and asked if he was ok with me transitioning - I felt abused.

Another quotation cited a bad experience with a psychiatrist who suggested the only appropriate pronoun for the patient was “it” and claimed that bisexual people didn’t exist.

A third reported:

Questions were overly irrelevant, prying and sexual. My first doctor asked about masturbation repeatedly, which made me very uncomfortable...

A fourth simply detailed the mental stress caused by the delay, confusions and misunderstandings.

On the other hand, Jay* a 24-year-old languages student in London who saw a psychiatrist and received a referral to the Charing Cross gender clinic earlier this month, said the psychiatrist was pleasant and reasonable.

Christine urges a balanced view:

There are good doctors and there are bad doctors, and there are good doctors having a bad day and there are bad patients.

There are people who have bees in their bonnet, and think they can cure transgender people by talking. It depends really on whether you are the first person that that doctor has seen.

There may also be an economic argument for a more sensitive system: happier people cost less. The Scottish survey showed that 44 per cent of trans people used mental health services more before transition, and none used mental health services more after having been through gender services.

Questioned as to why there was such a variable quality of treatment for trans people in the NHS and such a high incidence of negative feedback, the Department of Health said that they were moving to regulate care commissioning from Primary Care Trusts so that there will be enough places at Gender Clinics, and to create a national body that would be responsible for keeping care standards consistent across regions.

The Department of Health reiterated that being transgender is not considered a mental health disorder by the NHS but that the role of psychiatrists was an important one to ensure that   “gender issues have their root in gender dysphoria and are not caused by other more complex psychiatric problems”.

The spokesperson added that the psychiatric assessment “could be a useful opportunity for the patient to discuss their condition with a professional.”

As for the psychiatrists calling patients “it”, and trying to work out what gender someone should be based on their haircut, the Department of Health said they would be commissioning a clear guide on transgender treatment that will be published this year.

* Names changed for the purposes of the article and pronouns used with agreement of interviewees.

Photograph: Getty Images
Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit