Dispelling the suicide myth

For almost ten years, lobby groups have been promoting the idea that for gender-confused children there are only two options: transition or die. The claim that childhood transition prevents suicide has been used as an argument for social transition in schools, for giving puberty blockers and hormones, and for silencing debate.

Championed by Susie Green of the charity Mermaids, and by Stonewall, this message is terrifying for both parents and children. 

“I have my daughter, whole and alive, but if I had refused to listen then it’s very likely that I would have a dead son.”

Susie Green, ex-CEO of Mermaids

“Suddenly Michael who has been presenting as Sarah is being forced to go through puberty… That’s where you see half of young people commit suicide.” 

Ruth Hunt when CEO of Stonewall, 2019

This narrative has been common in the media, including the ITV drama Butterfly (for which Green was the adviser), The Guardian, New York Times and National Geographic. Exaggerated risk of suicide is used as a rhetorical threat to promote gender ideology in political debate, by activists, in workplaces and in guidance given to schools.

It is often backed with the “statistic” that 48% of young people with a transgender identity attempt suicide. For example, the House of Commons Transgender Equality report refers to Mermaids, the trans charity for children, saying: “There was a significant risk of self-harm or suicide where hormone treatment is not yet being given; they drew attention to evidence that the attempted suicide rate among young trans people is 48%.” Transgender Trend debunked this claim in 2016, but it is still being used.

The Cass Review looks at the medical evidence on suicide risk and concludes: 

“It has been suggested that hormone treatment reduces the elevated risk of death by suicide in this population but the evidence found did not support this conclusion.”

Sex Matters has published a factsheet which brings the evidence together.

The suicide claim has fuelled demand for puberty blockers

The claim about suicide risk has been used to justify the social and medical transition of children. This pushes parents to demand medical interventions, and to expect teachers to facilitate social transition in school – letting a child present as the other sex, concealing their true sex, demanding others use wrong-sex pronouns and granting access to facilities for classmates of the opposite sex.. 

Whatever the risks and possible harms of puberty blocking and cross-sex hormones, if the alternative is suicide the downsides can be dismissed. The final report from the Cass Review said that even clinicians are misled by this supposed cost-benefit analysis:

“Some clinicians feel under pressure to support a medical pathway based on widespread reporting that gender-affirming treatment reduces suicide risk. This conclusion was not supported by the systematic review.”

But this claim is false – and this has long been known

The overwrought claims of suicide risk and actual suicide have been debunked over and over again, both by campaign groups like Transgender Trend and Fair Play For Women, and by journalists in the USA and the UK. Sex Matters’ factsheet builds on these with the evidence from the most recently published studies. These show that suicide among children is extremely rare, even among those with mental-health referrals. The final report from the Cass Review states clearly that while young people with mental-health issues, including those with gender dysphoria, face elevated suicide risk compared with the healthy population, suicides remain “very rare” (pages 186–187).

She also refutes the misleading claim that puberty blockers reduce suicide risk:

“The evidence does not adequately support the claim that gender-affirming treatment reduces suicide risk.”

Professor Sir Louis Appleby, who advises the government on suicide prevention in England, has called for this misleading messaging to stop:

“Evidence that puberty blockers reduce risk is weak and unreliable. Invoking suicide in this debate is mistaken & potentially harmful.”

Professor Louis Appleby (posted on X/Twitter, 12th March 2024)

The response from transactivists is alarming

You might expect campaigners for young people with gender dysphoria to welcome this news and promote it far and wide. After all, these children and their parents need not fear dire consequences arising from the decision by NHS England and NHS Scotland to halt the routine prescription of puberty blockers. Instead, many are questioning  the validity of Cass’s conclusions and promoting hyperbolic hashtags like #CassKillsKids. Trans academic Natacha Kennedy suggested that the “main outcome of @thecassreview will be more trans children committing suicide”. 

This sort of rhetoric can cause genuine harm. Some children have been told that puberty blockers are life-saving and essential. As Cass pointed out,  living in stealth as the other sex creates fear and strain for children, which is exacerbated by the approach of puberty. In the face of harmful myths about the risks facing gender-distressed children, how are they to know that going through puberty will give them the best chance of developing into a healthy adult who no longer feels discomfort about their sexed body? These children need reassurance, not scaremongering.

Activists who continue to promote this frightening myth are stoking fear instead of reassurance for distressed teenagers that “it gets better”. 

What to do if you are concerned

Every suicide is a terrible tragedy and we must be extremely careful about what we say to young people on this subject. 

The NSPCC says that every warning sign of suicide should be taken seriously and acted on accordingly. Suicidal feelings should be treated as a child-protection issue and trigger a similar level of response to children at risk of harm from others.But parents and their distressed children do not deserve to be terrorised and manipulated by false data that create unnecessary concern. They need to know the facts.