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‘False narratives’ around puberty blockers ‘harm trans kids in the long run’

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A Telegraph article titled Children as young as nine prescribed puberty blockers at Sturgeon-backed gender clinic

After yet another scaremongering article on puberty blockers in The Telegraph, it’s been warned that misinformation around the life-saving treatment could be harming kids in the long run.

The article, published on Monday (31 October) and headlined “Children as young as nine prescribed puberty blockers at Sturgeon-backed gender clinic”, discusses the care provided by the Sandyford clinic, the only youth gender identity service in Scotland.

It is based on research published in the European Journal of Paediatrics in September 2021, over a year ago.

While its report that “79 children aged between nine and 18 were referred for puberty-suppressing drugs while being treated at the Sandyford Clinic in Glasgow” is correct, The Telegraph fails to mention that these referrals were made between 2011 and 2019, a period of eight years.

Therefore on average, less than 10 young people per year were prescribed puberty blockers at Sandyford.

Furthermore, while the young people ranged in age from 9.7 to 18 years old, the median age of those prescribed puberty blockers was 14.8 years.

The regional NHS board which oversees Sandyford – NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde – told PinkNews that the number of nine-year-olds that had engaged with the gender identity service was so low that it could not disclose the exact number without breaching patient confidentiality.

A spokesperson said: “The Sandyford Clinic offers a range of gender services in line with national frameworks.

“Anyone who seeks to engage with Sandyford’s Gender Service must undergo a full assessment from a multi-disciplinary team.

“This process, which includes a number of appointments with healthcare professionals is in place to ensure patients are able to make fully informed choices as there can be a great deal of uncertainty to manage throughout this process and it is extremely important the patient is aware of all implications.

“These assessments form a crucial and significant part of the treatment journey for all of our patients.”

Responding to The Telegraph’s piece on Sandyford, a spokesperson for the trans youth charity Mermaids said: “We know from our service users how important puberty blockers are in giving some young people more time to understand themselves.

“They are an internationally recognised safe, reversible healthcare option which can prove invaluable for many – particularly when considering the irreversible effects of puberty and the anguish that can and does cause trans, non-binary and gender diverse young people.

“Misleading information around blockers can perpetuate false narratives which can harm young people in the long run. Most importantly, trans young people need to be given a supportive environment to explore their identity without fear of judgement.”

Interestingly, The Telegraph insists that “psychiatrists and campaigners have demanded that the Scottish government immediately close down the clinic over its readiness to medicate ‘clearly vulnerable and troubled children'”, while also noting that 600 young people were seen by Sandyford during the last year.

The statistic is meant to shock, but with an average of 10 young people prescribed puberty blockers per year, this means that a minuscule 1.6 per cent of patients seen at the gender clinic were given the medication.

The Telegraph article also quoted Dr David Bell, a former psychiatrist in adult services at the Tavistock and Portman NHS foundation trust in north London, who has been openly critical of the trust’s Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS), the only youth gender clinic in England.

This year it was announced that GIDS would be closing, to make way for decentralised gender-affirming care for young people in centres across the country that will bring down wait times.

The decision was welcomed by the families whose trans children had spent years on waiting lists, and who described the system as “broken”. But the closure of GIDS has been weaponised by anti-trans campaigners who claim the decision is proof that gender-affirming care for young people is dangerous.

The Telegraph chose to platform this misinformation, quoting Bell as saying: “Sandyford should be shut down. NHS England has agreed that the gender service at Tavistock be shut down for these reasons [relating to puberty blockers]. It is not that English children have different bodies or genes or minds to Scottish children.”

In fact, the NHS said GIDS is closing because a single service “cannot and should not” meet nationwide demand. The “expertise that resides within the current GIDS service” will be “critical to the successful formation of the new… services”, it added.

While the newspaper painted the results of the research as negative, the authors of the actual study described the Sandyford youth gender clinic as having “clear benefits for young people and their families”, and advocated for the expansion of gender-affirming care for young people in Scotland.

Researchers called for the “coordination of inter-professional care to meet complex needs at an individual level” through “the development of specialist centres” in Scotland.

The misleading article was given even more of a platform after part of the story was uncritically read out, without context, by BBC Radio 4 presenter Justin Webb.

The Telegraph has published several articles in recent weeks targeting services and healthcare for trans youth.

After a string of articles that attacked Mermaids, the trans children’s charity was bombarded with abuse so severe that 80 calls and messages had to be reported to the police.

PinkNews contacted The Telegraph for comment.