Psychologists who work with transgender teens say families and friends can help their loved ones through the difficult transition by providing a safe place to talk, by listening and not being judgmental.
Rejection is devastating
Rachel Kitson, a psychologist with Southeast Psych in Charlotte, said transgender teens often feel alienated from families and friends who aren’t accepting of their gender identity. “That type of rejection just really messes someone up.”
Even though 18-year-old Blake Brockington spoke openly and confidently about his identity, he apparently committed suicide in Charlotte last week. “That speaks to how devastating this is internally for someone,” Kitson said. “…It’s one thing to be able to talk about it and be an advocate, but you can still feel pretty damaged by it.
“A lot of the teens I work with, their parents just really don’t understand. Even if they want to be supportive, the teen just feels a lot of rejection. There’s a lot of self-hate or self-loathing because they have this internal struggle.”
Schools need to offer safe places where transgender students won’t be bullied, she added. “Some schools in Charlotte are very supportive and very aware, and students feel very comfortable being open about their gender identity. There are other schools where students feel very unsafe and very judged.”
High school and middle school years are stressful for kids in general. But for transgender students, struggling with their sexuality and societal expectations for gender roles, the path is harder. Some start cutting themselves to transfer the pain. Others, who have been good students, start getting poor grades. “If they dare to be open about it, they are immediately labeled,” Kitson said.
She advises transgender clients to realize they’re on a journey. “It’s a process. This is about self-discovery. There’s no need to rush anything. It will play out. ... I tell them to have some patience with it, and patience with the world, to find a safe place to talk about it, to find someone that they trust.”
Mental health care access
Jill Harkavy-Friedman, a psychologist with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the key to preventing suicide is having access to mental health care and recognizing that getting help is a positive step, not something to be embarrassed about.
“When people are suicidal, there is a sense of not feeling connected,” she said. “They may have a lot of people who care about them, but when they’re in a depressed state, a person may not feel connected. We can reach out to people and get them help.”
Mental health professionals advise family and friends to watch for certain signs – such as personality changes, continued agitation – that suggest someone might be considering suicide. But sometimes people don’t notice because “we’ve very accepting of the people we love and care about,” Harkavy-Friedman said.
To those who feel guilty because they might have missed a sign, she added that sometimes there aren’t any. “Some people will have something going on inside that is different from what they show the world.”
Erica Lennon, a staff psychologist at the UNC Charlotte Counseling Center, said even someone as seemingly confident as Blake faced a struggle when coming to terms with a new identity.
“You can work with the individuals, but as long as the system and the society continue to be oppressive and not affirming, these difficulties will continue,” Lennon said. “Every individual has their own unique set of challenges. And our challenge is to offset that with support.”
Based on national estimates that about 1/3 of 1 percent of the population identifies as transgender, Lennon estimated that 100 students on the UNCC campus are transgender. Blake had enrolled as a freshman last fall but was not a student at the time of his death.
Lennon said she works with other university officials to “shift the system and shift the environment to be more affirming and inclusive on the campus and in the greater community as well.”
Time Out Youth: 704-344-8335, 2320 N. Davidson St., Charlotte; Q-Tribe support group for transgender youths meets Thursdays from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860 crisis hotline, www.translifeline.org.
Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386, crisis hotline, www.thetrevorproject.org.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Youth Suicide Prevention Program: www.yspp.org.
Carolinas HealthCare System Behavioral Health Call Center: 704-444-2400, crisis hotline.
Signs to respond to
▪ Sudden or gradual change in personality and behavior.
▪ Uncharacteristic anger, anxiety, agitation, moodiness, insomnia.
▪ Withdrawal and isolation from others, failing to go to work or school.
▪ Lack of attention to personal hygiene.
▪ Risk-taking or self-destructive behavior, abusing alcohol or drugs.
▪ Depression, feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
▪ Expressions of hopelessness and helplessness.
▪ Talking of suicide, such as, “You’d be better off without me.”
▪ Securing lethal means, such as a gun or an accumulation of pills.
▪ Lack of interest in the future.
Mental health professionals say that if you see these signs, you should call a crisis hotline or contact a school counselor, private psychologist or psychiatrist. “That would get you the help that you need,” said Tom Gettelman, vice president at Mindy Ellen Levine Behavioral Health Center in Davidson. “If they are voicing immediate threats, they should be taken to an emergency department.”
Sources: The Campaign to Change Direction, www.changedirection.org; Carolinas HealthCare System Behavioral Health.