Puberty blockers literally make trans kids happier, landmark new study confirms

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The majority of transgender teenagers who take puberty blockers to treat severe gender dysphoria feel happier, a long-awaited study of patients at the NHS Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) has confirmed.

Researchers studied 44 young people with persistent and severe gender dysphoria aged 12-15 from when they were approved for puberty blocking treatment by clinicians at GIDS, the youth gender clinic for England and Wales run by the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust.

The young people and their families were all patients at GIDS and were closely monitored between 2011 and 2014, after being assessed for two years.

A majority of the trans young people on puberty blockers had a positive experience of the treatment, the study, which was published in journal PLOS One, found.

“Participant experience of treatment as reported in interviews was positive for the majority, particularly relating to feeling happier, feeling more comfortable, better relationships with family and peers and positive changes in gender role,” the conclusion states.

“Smaller numbers reported having mixed positive and negative changes. A minority (12 per cent at 6-15 months and 17 per cent at 15-24 months) reported only negative changes, which were largely related to anticipated side effects. None wanted to stop treatment due to side effects or negative changes.”

The study found that 98 per cent of the young people continued on to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) once puberty blocking treatment stopped at the age of 16 – as had been predicted, given the severity and persistence of their gender dysphoria.

Researchers emphasised that puberty blockers are not a gender-affirming treatment, like HRT or surgeries, and as a result are not expected to significantly improve gender dysphoria but to prevent it from worsening during what can be a distressing time for young trans people.

“Gender dysphoria and body image changed little across the study. This is consistent with some previous reports and was anticipated, given that GnRHa [puberty blockers] does not change the body in the desired direction, but only temporarily prevents further masculinisation or feminisation,” said the researchers, led by Dr Polly Carmichael of GIDS.

In addition to the positive outcomes for young trans people given puberty blockers when it came to mood and family relationships, the study found that the only “adverse” outcomes of puberty blockers were “minor and anticipated”. These included reduced growth that is dependent on hormones, like height.

Researchers found that the young patients reported “predominantly positive or neutral” changes in their family and friend relationships while taking puberty blockers, as well as positive changes in gender role, feeling happier, relieved, and seeing their facial hair or periods stop.

Negative changes, experienced by 12 per cent of those studied, included “hot flushes, tiredness, and feeling more emotional”. Five per cent of patients reported feeling no changes.

The study is in line with other research into the effects of puberty blockers on young people with gender dysphoria, although the researchers emphasise the need for more data.

Dr Polly Carmichael, director of GIDS, said: “This paper adds to our understanding of the best way to support these young people.

“The results show patient experience on the blocker is positive overall and there were no unexpected adverse events, but that more research is needed around this complex issue.”

Russell Viner, professor of Adolescent Health at UCL (University College London), added: “At all stages of the process we have followed rigorous ethical guidelines.

“We have published findings in an open access international peer-reviewed journal with open peer review.”