In a nation that is just 300 years past believing that if a woman floated in water that means she is a witch, there is no denying that our society has quite frequently had a problem with incorrectly labeling things. When people are confronted with something that is unfamiliar to them, their instinct is quite frequently to categorize it as something they believe they already understand; but in doing so, we not only trap ourselves in ignorance but we also can cause harm to others.
A perfect example of this phenomenon can be seen in the frequent and—whether intentional or not—objectively damaging fallacy of labeling transgender identity as a mental illness. The topic of transgender identity is one that has recently become much more common in public discourse, though the topic itself is still something that many individuals are far from accurately understanding.
AN ILLNESS AND AN IDENTITY ARE TWO ENTIRELY DIFFERENT THINGS.
An illness, by definition, is an undesirable material condition. This means that in order for something to be considered an illness, it must be dependent on the material world. Even psychological illnesses—such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD—can be considered to be dependent on material conditions because they are products of a material state (such as an individual’s neurochemical balance) or an experience with the material world itself (such as trauma).
When an individual has a diagnosable illness, an informed professional ought to be able to witness a specific material condition and be able to say, “here is the evidence that you have an objectively diagnosable condition.” This is how every physical and mental illness recognized by the AMA needs to be diagnosed—it cannot simply be dreamt, or imagined, or imposed.
Identity, on the other hand, is an entirely subjective thing and is not dependent on any particular material condition. Gender and sex—though often incorrectly treated ambiguously—are two different things. An individual’s sex is an objective material condition, but an individual’s gender is an immaterial condition that is subject to change and be redefined. Gender (along with race) is something that exists upon a spectrum, and these binaries we have created and imposed upon each other as a society can be uniquely damaging and, frankly, simply inaccurate.
Imagine another sort of label that might be imposed on a person—such as an athlete, musician, activist, friend, or even just someone’s name. What makes an individual an athlete? Do we live in a world where everyone must either be an athlete or not be an athlete, and there is nothing in between? How many times a week does somebody need to play sports to be considered an athlete? Can an individual’s status as an athlete change throughout their life?
Though this is indeed a rough example, the point that is trying to be made is that labeling someone upon a subjective spectrum such as “athletic” or “gendered” is a completely arbitrary process. Because gender identity is entirely subjective, fluid, and not defined by anything material, it could not possibly be diagnosed as a mental illness, and doing so produces both internal ignorance and external consequences.
LABELING TRANSGENDER IDENTITY AS A MENTAL ILLNESS ISN’T JUST FACTUALLY INCORRECT—IT HAS VERY REAL NEGATIVE PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS UPON BOTH TRANSGENDER INDIVIDUALS AND SOCIETY.
The collective deconstruction of the gender binary is not something that ought to be reserved only for the ivory towers of academia—it is something that ought to be brought to the attention of the general public. When both public and private discourses continuously (and fallaciously) project the message to transgender individuals “there is something permanently wrong with you”, such a message can have uniquely damaging psychological effects.
Neither the people espousing such a message nor the transgender individuals themselves can possibly be made better off by such a message. Potential negative effects include identity confusion, damaged self-esteem, depression, feelings of rejection, and feelings of alienation. None of these outcomes are good for society.
Love and empathy are eternally more powerful than ignorance and rejection. Labeling transgender identity as a mental illness is both medically inaccurate and socially damaging.
Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).