How to Help the Transgender Community Amid Spike in Suicide Hotline Calls

David Oliver
U.S.News & World Report


Growing up, Michaela Mendelsohn could only be herself in private. The person everyone knew wasn't Michaela -- it was Michael.

When she was 7, Mendelsohn played stickball with all the other kids in Long Island, New York. Behind closed doors, she tried on her sister's clothes in an era when the term "transgender" wasn't even used. She fully transitioned in 2006.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

Despite growing awareness, experts say the transgender community is experiencing a crisis in the wake of last month's election of Donald Trump, whose party's values don't often align with LGBT interests.

Trans Lifeline, a nonprofit that focuses on the well-being of trans people, received more than 400 calls on its peer-to-peer transgender well-being hotline the two days following the presidential election. Before that, it averaged 75 calls per day. Calls typically spike following times of crisis for the transgender and lesbian-gay-bisexual communities -- like after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.

Also two days post-election, The Trevor Project, an organization that offers intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT and questioning kids, saw its average number of crisis hotline calls more than double. "Since the election, the LGBT children in this country are really frightened, and it comes through on the calls," says Mendelsohn, now a 64-year-old transgender activist, businesswoman and board member of The Trevor Project.

That anxiety may not abate anytime soon. The trans community is expected to double in the next few years, as more people feel comfortable coming out. Yet this increased visibility can bring increased resistance and backlash. More conservative districts, for example, have spoken out against the issue of whether trans people can use the bathroom with which they identify.

"Trans people are the ones who are most likely to experience violence in bathrooms , yet we are portrayed as being predators," says Andre Perez, director of marketing and communications for Trans Lifeline.

Amid the increased hostility, where can the transgender community turn for help -- and how can others provide it?

[See: 8 Things You Didn't Know About Counseling.]

A Community in Crisis

Nearly half -- 41 percent -- of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their lives.

The factors contributing to these attempts often include: feeling rejected, victimized, mis-gendered or discriminated against, according to study by Rylan Testa, an assistant professor of psychology at Rhodes College, Perez explains. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, released in December by the National Center for Transgender Equality, found that 60 percent of respondents who are out to their immediate family received support from those people about their identity. Still, 10 percent of respondents who had come out to their immediate family experienced violence from a family member due to their identity.

Mendelsohn is no stranger to feeling less than her peers. She faced harsh bullies growing up, though the taunting reached its peak in ninth grade when the class bully urinated on her in the boys' shower after gym class. And just because she seemed different.

She suppressed her identity for a long time, transforming herself into a macho athlete and later fathering three kids. After years of concealing who she was, she eventually couldn't handle it anymore and began her transition.

She didn't feel suicidal until showing up anonymously to her daughter's seventh grade middle school open house in 2006 ahead of her full transition. There, she read one of her daughter's poems and learned how heartbroken her daughter was with the changes taking shape. The next day, Mendelsohn debated stepping into oncoming traffic. Her then 19-year-old son saved her life, telling her, "Dad, I don't care what gender you're in, this family needs you."

"Research suggests that likelihood of making an attempt increases as a person gets older, contrary to popular belief," Perez says. "This is because trans people experience trauma associated with life events -- family rejection, sexual assault, domestic violence, hate violence, etc. -- and the trauma compounds itself as people continue to experience trauma."

[See: How to Find the Best Mental Health Professional for You.]

Getting Help

Trans Lifeline's volume of "calls are not as high as they were immediately after the election, but they are still higher than they were before the election," Perez says. While crisis hotlines are always available to those in need, trans community members who are struggling can reach out to key individuals, too. "Look for someone in their life who feels 'safe' to come out to for support," Mendelsohn says. "Could be a relative, friend or teacher. Those who attempt suicide most often are feeling they are all alone with no one to turn to."

The American Psychological Association recommends calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) if you're feeling suicidal, which can point you toward the closest suicide prevention and mental health service provider. The APA also gives tips on how to be vigilant for warning signs in others. There may be challenges, however, in finding a professional specializing in issues unique to the trans community.

"Callers to the Trans Lifeline often live outside of major metropolitan areas, do not have health care and/or do not know where to find supportive mental health professionals," Perez says. "Sometimes they are calling because they sought care only to find abuse at the hands of psychiatric facilities and therapists. Crisis intervention is critical, but it is not enough." Perez says the organization is working on the first-ever Trans Mental Health Survey, in conjunction with the National LGBTQ Task Force.

If you are transgender and need someone to talk to, you can call the Trevor Project Lifeline here: 866-488-7386 and Trans Lifeline here for the U.S.: (877) 565-8860 and here for Canada: (877) 330-6366.

[See: How Social Workers Help Your Health.]

How You Can Help

If you're not transgender, there are ways you can speak up for the community -- including doing things as simple as watching your language.

Be a safe place. Mendelsohn tells students not to use phrases like "that's so gay" or words like "tranny," as they can make people feel badly about themselves. She adds: "Students not using these words helps them create a safe space for their friends who might be looking for someone to 'come out to.' Our studies show that just one compassionate adult in a youth's life lowers their chance of suicide by 30 percent."

Support trans-led organizations, financially or through volunteer work. Perez says the greater lesbian, gay and bisexual community could be doing more to help the transgender community, specifically. "The reality is that for a long time, LGBT organizations don't have a good track record of serving the trans community or being authentically inclusive, and it's very rare for an LGBT organization to have a history of promoting leadership from trans folks," he says.

Get educated. "I think people should educate themselves and not necessarily rely on people in the trans community to have to educate them about all of the things," says Tamara Pincus, a licensed clinical social worker and certified sex therapist.

Perez worries about Trans Lifeline's ability to answer all the calls it receives, a problem that can only be solved with the support of the community and from outsiders.


David Oliver is Associate Editor, Social Media at U.S. News & World Report. Follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, or send him an email at doliver@usnews.com.

What to Read Next