Different Gender Expression Takes A Toll on Teens

By Alan Mozes

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Sept. 24, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- American teens whose behavior, appearance or lifestyle do not conform to widely held views on what it is to be a "normal" male or female face a high risk for mental distress and drug abuse, new research warns.

The findings were culled from a national survey exploring the psychological risk profiles of teens who described themselves as "gender nonconforming."

The poll enlisted more than 6,000 students enrolled in high schools in three large urban school districts across California and Florida.

"Gender nonconformity is gender expression that differs from societal expectations for feminine or masculine appearance and behavior," explained study author Michelle Johns. As such, it's an "area of adolescent health that is often linked to negative health outcomes."

In fact, previous research has suggested that gender nonconforming individuals often struggle with "social stress," due to stigma, discrimination, harassment and violence, noted Johns, a health scientist in the division of adolescent and school health at the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

But this latest study, she said, "is among the first to examine mental distress and substance use among gender nonconforming youth."

In the end, the team found that nonconforming girls and boys in high school faced a higher risk for feeling sad, feeling hopeless, and entertaining suicidal thoughts and/or suicidal behavior. Substance abuse risk also rose, investigators observed.

About 55 percent of those surveyed were Hispanic, while about 16 percent were white and 19 percent were black.

Students were asked to indicate how their peers would characterize their gender, based on their "appearance, style, dress, or the way they walk or talk."

On that basis, about 1 in 5 said they were either "moderately" or "highly" gender nonconforming. Boys were more likely to say they were gender nonconforming than girls, as were younger students and those who were LGBTQ.

Among moderately nonconforming girls, half said they felt sad and hopeless, a figure that dipped to 45 percent among their highly nonconforming peers. That, said investigators, could reflect the particular difficulties of navigating a middle pathway when tackling gender identity.