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Gender dysphoria

4-minute read

Gender dysphoria is the discomfort a person feels with how their body is perceived and allocated a gender by other people. The experience may occur when a person feels their biological or physical sex doesn’t match their sense of their own gender.

This feeling, that there is a mismatch, can trigger a range of responses. Some people experience serious distress, anxiety and emotional pain, which can affect their mental health. Others experience only low-level distress — or none at all.

For this reason, gender dysphoria is no longer considered a mental illness.

What is gender?

The idea of ‘gender’ is complex. Generally, it’s about what it means to be ‘male’ or ‘female’ and is often defined by society and influenced by culture more than by biology. A person’s gender involves their inner sense of being male, female or somewhere in between and this can change over time. The gender that you identify with might be the same as, or it might be different from the biological sex — boy or girl — that you were assigned at birth. Biological sex is defined by your physical sexual or reproductive characteristics, such as whether you have a vagina or a penis.

How does gender dysphoria come about?

Different people show their gender identity in different ways. They might have been born female and later identify as male; they might have been born male and later identify as female. Or they might identify as being somewhere in between a boy and a girl or a man and a woman. They might have another sense of their gender identity. These different situations can be described as ‘transgender’ or ‘gender diverse’.

Some people with gender dysphoria strongly feel they want their body changed so it fits their self-identified gender. They might want to have the physical features of that gender and be treated as having that gender identity. These feelings may become stronger around puberty and adolescence.

Gender diversity by itself does not cause mental health problems. However, some people with gender dysphoria find the mismatch of their body and gender identity to be so distressing that it leads to serious mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and even suicide.

Not every transgender or gender diverse person will have this experience however, and not all will experience gender dysphoria.

Support for people with gender dysphoria

If you, your child or your partner have feelings of gender dysphoria, you can talk to a doctor or other health professional about what help you can get.

Services such as Headspace or QLife can support people who are having this or similar experiences.

Choices for people with gender dysphoria

If someone has gender dysphoria, there are different ways in which they can get help. The focus is on supporting the person and their family in working out what is best for the person.

Psychological counselling, especially from someone with experience in helping people with gender dysphoria, can be beneficial. Some people also find it helpful to change their sex on official documents, such as their passport or driver’s licence, to show the gender they identify with. In Australia, you will need a letter from your doctor or a psychologist to make this change on official documents.

It is unethical for a doctor or psychologist to try to change your gender identity, and this is not an appropriate form of treatment.

Hormone treatment can help some people with gender dysphoria. There are 2 types:

  • medication to block puberty
  • cross-sex hormone treatment, using hormones such as oestrogen or testosterone, which can be prescribed for children from around age 16

The type of hormone treatment recommended will depend on whether the person has been through puberty yet, and a medical specialist in hormonal treatment will supervise it. Depending on their age, the person may need permission from parents or a legal authority to go ahead.

Once someone is 18 years of age, they can consider surgery to change some of the physical features that don’t align with their gender identity. Usually people have hormone treatment for some time before deciding on surgery.

There are many kinds of treatment, so if you are experiencing gender dysphoria you should feel free to ask your doctor any questions you might have. Any type of treatment is tailored to the person’s individual needs.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2019

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