Gender Dysphoria

What is gender?

Gender Dysphoria is complex. So it is hard to define. It is more a social idea as against a biological one. Gender goes beyond male or female. There are people whose gender doesn’t neatly fit into these two groups.

What is Gender Dysphoria?

Is it a term that describes the distress caused by a difference between one’s real gender with one’s assigned gender and or primary and secondary sexual characteristics? It is discomfort with how their body perceives and allocate a gender by others.

 Assigned gender is the gender attributed to an individual at birth, it’s what is written on a birth certificate for example.

Psychiatry and Gender Dysphoria – Background

The historical practice of psychiatry is stepped in pathologizing and highly stigmatizing view of transgender people. Non-binary or transgender individuals, even young people are likely to be aware of this history and likely cautious speaking to mental health professionals as a result. Health care training offers little in the way of exposure to transitioning services for student health care workers. This has left psychiatrists and other health care workers on the back foot to meet the demands. Previously gender dysphoria was a mental disorder. However, there are attempts to move the term under the sexual health conditions umbrella.

How common is Gender Dysphoria?

In a single word, very. This can be short. It is thought that about 1 in every 100 people experience gender dysphoria at some point in their lives. But, the number of people that go on to get formal help for it is much lower. On the other hand, it is important to remember that changing views about one’s gender doesn’t mean gender dysphoria. A key part of the label of gender dysphoria is the distress due to a gender mismatch between the old and the new gender.

Drivers of Gender Dysphoria and Gender Variance

People express their gender in different ways. Sometimes female at birth but later grow up to identify as male. Also as they get older view themselves again to be female or another different sense of their gender identity. Changes in how a person views their gender can change over time. Often different aspects of their lives are contributing. Sometimes hormonal changes, greater self-awareness or a change of environment might be the trigger. Below we have listed some of the factors thought to contribute to gender dysphoria.


There appears to be a number of biological factors that contribute to gender. These include sex chromosomes, hormones, genetic and epigenetic factors. Epigenetics refers to how our environment impacts the expression of our genes. The foveal and infant brains appear to be particularly sensitive to sex hormones. Sexual maturation trajectories can differ, especially as there are so many variables.


Social and psychological factors can all play a role in how a young person experiences gender.
Here are some examples of how these psychosocial factors can play a part.
  • Gender-specific clothing, colours of the child’s items, toys and haircut all go some way towards influencing gender. A child who has short hair and boy clothes will be reinforced that their gender is male.
  • Verbal labelling such as son or daughter, boy or girl can go a long way towards reiterating the gender.
  • Going to gender-specific schools, having gender-specific experiences can influence how someone sees themselves. For instance, going to football practice twice weekly with a group of other boys will easily impact how a child views themselves with regards to their gender.
  • Cultural, familial factors are likely to play a role. There are varying degrees of openness and as a result suppression of gender variance, depending on where one lives.
  • Educational, awareness and maturity level. Until recently, with the help of the internet, there are communication and learning about gender variance. This has likely led to more people understanding their distress and seeking help.
An interplay of psychosocial and biological factors are complex. This probably explains the diversity of gender presentations. Also, treatments or ways to help people experiencing gender-related distress increases.


Impacts of gender-related stigma

Gender variant children and adults experience high levels of shame and abuse. It is not uncommon for these people to experience bias, employment and homelessness. Fortunately, there are increasing supports available and awareness drives in place.

How can mental health professionals help?

There’s a remarkable change in the agreement view on the role of mental health professionals in this.
In this article, we will cover various roles mental health professionals can play in helping adults with gender dysphoria.
  • Assist to clarify and understand the person’s commitment to changes in gender.
  • As part of the consent to the treatment process, it is important that there is an awareness of the treatment options and alternatives that are considering. Therapists will explore these with you and want to understand your choice.
  • Psychologists can help with coming out to co-workers, friends and family members. You can do this by helping to better understand the interpersonal dynamics and the use of role-plays as practice.
  • Family therapists can help with couples counselling, help with family dynamics. Sometimes when adult parents transition it can impact their children, it’s important to consider and address the child’s needs.
  • Sometimes psychiatrists involve in determining eligibility for certain hormones or surgical procedures. Usually, this depends on the local laws and regulations.
  • Ensuring preparedness for changes, both psychological and social, from gender reassignment therapies.
  • Complete a thorough assessment of overall mental health and wellbeing. Gender variance associates with higher rates of mood and anxiety concerns.


What to expect during an assessment

It really depends on the individual and in particular where they are in their journey with regards to gender. Someone at the beginning, starting to explore options will have different concerns to someone who transitioned many years ago. Given the high rates of boost and co-occurring mental health concerns, often a broad-ranging assessment needs. Asking questions about suicidality is not surprising. This is especially true during periods of high risk such as in the immediate aftermath of trauma or prior to coming out to loved ones. During a gender assessment, clinicians often inquire when a person first noticed differences between them and what was expected of their assigned gender. Questions about distress during the emergence of unwanted secondary sexual characteristics. Discussions around practicalities such as pronouns, name and clothing changes all form part of an assessment. Therapists will inquire about wishes to transition and more broadly on how best to support the person. A mental health assessment can take a couple of sessions. It’s important that everyone feels comfortable, and openly communicates expectations. The pace of the assessment, what is covered and what isn’t is up to the person being assessed. Most people who are transitioning seek mental health inputs at various points along the journey. Therapists often want to know what helped, and what didn’t in the past.

Diagnostic checklist for Gender Dysphoria

Often for people who have experienced long-standing distress, the diagnosis of gender dysphoria is quite straightforward. It gets more complicated when a person is ambivalent or uncertain about their sexual identity. This is not uncommon. Other complicating factors could be co-occurring mental illnesses or presentations, for instance, psychosis, autism spectrum disorders or low intellect.

To help with diagnosis  clinicians use the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 diagnostic criteria.

In that diagnostic manual the following criteria are looked for:
  • A strong wish to change one’s primary or secondary characteristics due to a mismatch with one’s own experience of one sexual characteristic
  • A wish to be of a different gender to the one assigned at birth.
  • A desire to be treated differently from one’s assigned gender.
  • A strong view that one has the typical emotions, thought processes and reactions to that of a gender different to the assigned gender.

More ways mental health professionals can help

Sometimes there is ambivalence or ambiguity around gender. A therapist can provide an environment that is open yet containing for a person to explore options

Some people who are struggling with gender variance and identity concerns can benefit from support groups. Mental health clinicians can direct people toward and also facilitate peer-led groups. Gender dysphoria can be an isolating experience, being involved in groups can help.

As mentioned above, gender dysphoria is associated with higher rates of mental illness. Oftentimes positive psychology techniques and other attempts to improve resilience can help.

Adjustment in hormone levels for those transitioning can lead to changes in mental state. For instance, excessive use of male hormones like testosterone is linked to manic and or psychotic episodes.

Gender dysphoria is a common condition that can cause significant psychological distress. Stigma, both discriminatory and self-stigmatization can lead to mental anguish. At Epsychiatry appointments can be organized for you to speak to a psychologist or a psychiatrist regarding gender. Contact our friendly support team to learn more.