NEWS

Trans College Students Are More Prone to Sleep Disorders, Study Finds

Young transgender woman using her laptop

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Key Takeaways

  • Trans college students are significantly more likely to develop sleep disorders than their cis counterparts.
  • They are also significantly more likely to develop depression and anxiety, as opposed to their cis peers.
  • Given that trans people continue to experience discrimination, this public health issue deserves greater attention.

Marginalized groups often face health inequities due to oppression. A recent study published in Nature and Science of Sleep found that transgender college students experience greater sleep challenges than their cis peers.

This cross-sectional study was conducted with 221,549 college students across the US and Canada and found that trans participants were significantly more likely to develop both sleep and mood disorders.

Since trans individuals often face increased health challenges due to oppression, it is crucial to prioritize greater outreach efforts.

Understanding the Research

This study, based on surveys from college students across North America, found that trans participants were 35% more likely to report inadequate sleep, 51% more likely to have trouble falling asleep, and 245% more likely to have a sleep disorder than their cis peers.

Researchers found that trans participants were 295% more likely to report depression, 253% more likely to report anxiety, 345% more likely to consider suicide, and 421% more likely to attempt suicide.

While this research informs recommendations for how to better support trans college students based on a large North American sample, it is worth noting that its primarily white participants are a limitation of this study.

Trans People Deserve Solidarity Efforts

Therapist with Mindpath HealthBrandi Garza, LPC, says, "We can say with certainty that members of the trans community suffer significantly disproportionate rates than their cis counterparts."

Garza explains, "The average cis individual can become an ally to trans and gender divergent people, and in this instance college students specifically, which can begin with inclusivity in the most basic humanistic needs available on any campus or public place."

For a tangible example, Garza notes restrooms as a space to demonstrate the awareness of these marginalized populations by ensuring that restrooms be gender-neutral and perform their function of allowing privacy for any person seeking to relieve themselves.

By highlighting how grade schools across America have begun teaching their staff and scholars concepts like “see something say something,” Garza underscores the need to intervene if trans people experience discrimination, harassment or bullying. "We must not stay quiet out of embarrassment or not knowing what to say or do," she says.

Brandi Garza, LPC

Perhaps the most important act as a human being that we can do to alleviate struggles that the trans and gender divergent college students face is a lack of connection to their human peers.

— Brandi Garza, LPC

Garza explains, "In the same way that most of us would respond with urgency to domestic abuse or child abuse, our trans community demands safety. Perhaps the most important act as a human being that we can do to alleviate struggles that the trans and gender divergent college students face is a lack of connection to their human peers."

When interacting with a trans person, Garza notes that it is important to remember that is not all they are. "Every person has a story and there is no single page that can exclusively define that person," she says.

To further clarify how to navigate this, Garza highlights, "Introduce yourself to them, learn their story, and share yours. At worst, you had an adult version of story time, and at best, you met a new friend."

Garza notes that marginalized populations are often more vulnerable to mental health concerns, but she underscores that she has personally never seen numbers like these when speaking to how much more vulnerable an oppressed group is, in comparison to their privileged counterparts.

The Pandemic Likely Exacerbated Concerns

Psychologist and clinical communications lead at Big Health, Marie Atallah, PhD, says, "The connection between mental health and sleep is well-documented and researched, and are very closely connected."

Atallah explains, "If an individual is experiencing poor sleep, in turn, tiredness affects cognitive skills such as attention and memory, to coping with daily life, which can ultimately lead to increased anxiety and distress. Increased anxiety and distress also impact how well you sleep."

For trans college students in North America, Atallah notes how the added stress of the college environment can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and distress and further impact their mental health and wellbeing.

Atallah highlights, "As the research points out, trans individuals are more likely to experience discrimination, isolation, and lack of social support, which amounts to an even more stressful experience as college students navigate new social circles, time management, and new environments."

Since mental health needs worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, social injustice, an unwelcoming political climate, social media, etc., Atallah notes how many may be left with even less support options, due to therapist shortages and burnout, cost, and stigma seeking help.

Marie Atallah, PhD

It’s critical for cis students to advocate for their trans classmates and stand up when hateful rhetoric, microaggressions and transphobic policies persist.

— Marie Atallah, PhD

Atallah explains, "It is critical for colleges and universities to allocate resources and put support systems in place for college students, particularly students of marginalized communities, as we continue to see high suicide rates and mental health needs in this age group."

Personalized and confidential mental health support is critical for a marginalized population like trans college students, according to Atallah. "A growing amount of literature consistently shows that trans individuals have alarming rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality," she says.

Atallah highlights, "Digital therapeutics can serve as safe, effective mental health treatments for trans college students; providing access to the program at any time, anywhere, at their convenience, without the requirement of visiting an in-person location on campus where their safety could be at risk or the experience of stigma by a counselor."

Cis students have the opportunity and responsibility to be advocates for the trans communities, as Atallah notes how they can serve as allies on campus by listening and making space for trans students.

Atallah explains, "It’s critical for cis students to advocate for their trans classmates and stand up when hateful rhetoric, microaggressions and transphobic policies persist. Cis students are called to recognize their place of power and privilege when these situations arise."

Specifically, power refers to a cis student’s ability to address the problematic status quo as a member of a non-marginalized group, according to Atallah. "Privilege refers to a cisgender student not being part of a group that is targeted or marginalized due to their identity," she says.

What This Means For You

As this research study highlights, trans college students are significantly more likely to develop sleep and mood disorders than their cis peers. If you are able to support this or any marginalized group, you have an ethical responsibility to take action.

1 Source
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  1. Hershner S, Jansen E, Gavidia R, Matlen L, Hoban M, Dunietz GL. Associations between transgender identity, sleep, mental health and suicidality among a North American cohort of college studentsNat Sci Sleep. 2021;13:383-398. doi:10.2147/nss.s286131