Being Transgender Is Not a Mental Illness, World Health Organization Says

The World Health Organization no longer considers gender incongruence—a condition experienced by some transgender people—as a mental disorder. 

The United Nations health agency announced on Monday the condition, also known as gender dysphoria, has been reclassified as a sexual health condition.

Gender incongruence is defined as a condition in which a person feels distressed because the gender they were assigned at birth according to their sex does not match their internal feelings: for example, a person with a penis who is biologically described as a boy despite their identifying as a girl. It is important to note that not every transgender person has gender incongruence.

The term is controversial as some argue it wrongly pathologizes the feelings of transgender people. However, others argue it is necessary in order for transgender people to seek treatment such as hormonal medications and surgeries.

GettyImages-451036902 (1) People hold a giant transgender flag during the Trans Pride Parade, in Istanbul, on June 22, 2014. The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that being transgender will no longer be classified as a mental illness. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images

The WHO said the scientific evidence is now clear that gender incongruence is not a mental disorder and acknowledged that classifying it as such “can cause enormous stigma for people who are transgender.”

However, the body explained there are “significant health care needs” specific to those with the condition that can be met when it is classified under its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). This documents all health conditions recognized by the body with a coding system.

Last updated in 1990, the ICD is the WHO’s list of officially recognized disorders, and associated information such as statistics and treatments. The ICD codes are used by countries to determine where to invest resources and form the basis for insurance billings in the U.S.

Similarly, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association reclassified gender identity disorder, an outdated term, to include gender dysphoria in its fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

Geoffrey Reed, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and chief consultant to the new section of the code, told LGBT website Pink News: “It’s sending a very strong message that the rest of the world is no longer considering it a mental disorder. One of the benefits of moving it out of the mental disorder section is trying to reduce stigma.”

The WHO highlights that transgender people can find it harder to access health services such as HIV care due to hurdles such as legal barriers, violence, stigma and discrimination.

HIV is a health issue that disproportionately affects this population: Transgender women are around 49 times more likely to be living with the condition than other adults of reproductive age.

Rebecca Stinson, head of trans inclusion at the LGBT charity Stonewall, told Newsweek: "Being trans is not a mental illness, and it’s great to see the WHO recognize this. Trans people seeking support need to be accepted for who they are."

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